Carle Illinois Professor Nicholas Wu awarded Michelson Prize to advance vaccine, immunology research

January 31, 2022

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The Michelson Medical Research Foundation and Human Vaccines Project has recognized three outstanding early career researchers, including University of Illinois biochemistry professor Nicholas Wu, with the Michelson Prizes: Next Generation Grants. Each winner will be awarded $150,000 to enable their high-impact ideas to advance human immunology, vaccine discovery, and immunotherapy. Professor Wu also holds an appointment in the biomedical and translational sciences department at Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the world a dramatic illustration of the importance of investing in cutting-edge research on human immunology and vaccines.

“We need disruptive thinkers and doers who dare to change the trajectory of the world for the better,” said Dr. Gary Michelson, founder and co-chair of Michelson Medical Research Foundation. “Yet promising young researchers too often lack the opportunities, resources, and freedom to explore their bold ideas. The pandemic has created additional roadblocks for many of them. With the Michelson Prizes, we aim to provide early-career investigators a vital boost for their forward-thinking approaches.”

Wu studies the evolution of viruses and antibodies, which are the proteins in our blood that fight viruses, bacteria, and other foreign substances known as antigens. As viruses like influenza and SARS CoV-2 mutate and ultimately escape antibody response, it becomes critically important for scientists to understand the mechanisms behind antibody-antigen activity in their quest for developing effective vaccines and treatments.

Wu joined the Department of Biochemistry in the School of Molecular & Cellular Biology as an assistant professor in 2020. He is developing a high-throughput screening platform which will allow him to systematically identify the targets of hundreds of thousands of antibodies and their binding ability in a single experiment.

“Rapid and accurate target identification for any given antibody will shift the paradigm of antibody discovery and characterization, as well as accelerate therapeutics and vaccine design,” he said.

In addition to Wu, the winners include Camila Consiglio, postdoctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet, and Rong Ma, postdoctoral fellow at Emory University.

The winners of the 2021 Michelson Prizes were selected through a rigorous global competition in which their research proposals were reviewed by a distinguished committee of internationally recognized scientists.

“It is inspiring to see their passion for innovation and their courage to think out of the box,” said Wayne Koff, CEO and president of the Human Vaccines Project. “I look forward to their future breakthrough discoveries and how their research can contribute to the Human Vaccines Project’s mission of developing the first AI model of human immunity.”

The winners will receive their awards in a virtual ceremony on March 10.

More about Nicholas Wu

Founded by Dr. Gary K. Michelson in 1995, the Michelson Medical Research Foundation accelerates solutions to global health challenges by fostering high-risk, high-reward approaches that disrupt the status quo to make innovative ideas a reality. Through convergent collaboration among engineers, scientists, and physicians, the foundation helps rapidly move bold concepts and technologies from the laboratory into clinics and communities around the world. Michelson Medical Research Foundation is a division of Michelson Philanthropies.

About the Human Vaccines Project

The Human Vaccines Project is a nonprofit public-private partnership with a mission to decode the human immune system and accelerate the development of vaccines and immunotherapies across major global diseases. The Project brings together leading academic research centers, industrial partners, nonprofits, and governments to answer core questions about how the human immune system fights disease and pioneer a new era in human health.

Editor’s note: The original version of this article can be found on the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology website.

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This story was published January 31, 2022.