In search of . . . influenza pathogenesis: Brian Akerley, PhD

On Tuesdays, the Daily Voice features a first-person narrative from a researcher explaining the science behind a recent grant, and the inspiration or impetus behind becoming a scientist at UMass Medical School. If you know of a researcher you’d like to see profiled, send an email to UMMScommunications@umassmed.edu


Brian Akerley, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology & physiological systems, talks about the grant he received from theNational Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseasesfor Mechanisms of Haemophilus influenzae pathogenesis in the lung; one year, $661,927; recommended for four more years, $1.6 million  DV-akerley-brian

We study the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae, which causes ear infections in children. In people with compromised lung function or after viral infection, this bacterium can cause life-threatening pneumonia. In fact, Haemophilus influenzae was so named because it was frequently isolated from the lungs of individuals who died as a result of past pandemics of influenza A virus. Infection with influenza virus alone is usually resolved effectively by the immune system. However, if bacterial infection becomes established after viral infection, it can lead to life-threatening pneumonia. In the current project, we are applying a genome-scale approach to identify all of the genes in the bacterium that allow it to grow rapidly in a mouse model of viral/bacterial co-infection. Knowing what the bacterium needs for survival in the normal versus virally infected lung can tell us what has changed to allow progression to pneumonia.

The current study will help us to better understand why bacterial infection becomes devastating in influenza virus-infected individuals. We expect the answers to fall into two categories: immune disruptions in defenses that normally keep bacteria in check, and physiological changes in the lung that favor bacterial multiplication. These clues will hopefully provide information on how strategies could be developed to either improve the immune response or to better target bacteria with antibiotics during co-infections and possibly in other conditions that predispose people to pneumonia.

I’ve always enjoyed the process of scientific exploration and discovery, but didn’t learn until midway through college that biomedical research could be a career choice. One of my professors let me “borrow” his laboratory for a few months to conduct an independent study project. This was the first time that I had investigated an unresolved biological question using modern tools, as opposed to conducting prepared lab exercises, so I relished the results, modest as they were. At the end of the project, when we met to review the experimental results, he mentioned to me that this hobby could be pursued as a profession. At that point, my path was pretty clear.

I grew up in Central Massachusetts, then did college in Maine, grad school in Los Angeles, a postdoc in Boston, and a faculty position in Michigan. During that time, UMass accelerated its recruiting, and a position for a microbiologist opened up. Excellent colleagues with diverse expertise synergistic with my research goals and strong institutional support for research made this school very attractive. I thought this academic community would be similarly attractive to trainees, and that has turned out to be true as I’ve been able to recruit smart and energetic people to the lab. Finally, I also have to admit to having some nostalgia for New England.

One of the most engaging aspects of science is in the early stages of discovery when we’ve found something we think could be important and can run it by colleagues. UMass is a great place for this, as I’ve never encountered a shortage of interested people with good ideas. Testing models based on initial experimental clues to find the one that is most valid is typically the most challenging part, and it is particularly satisfying when I’m able to help lab members break through barriers in this process to answer important questions in biology. In terms of the big picture, it is exciting to think about ways that the discoveries we make in the lab can be applied to fighting infectious disease.