Gordon Researchers Attack Allergies and Inflammation

The allergy and inflammation satellite lab at Gordon is like “another home,” says Holly Huang ’18, a chemistry major (biochemistry concentration), “since I spend half the day here!”

Understanding the biology of the eosinophil, a type of white blood cell involved in inflammation in some types of asthma and gastrointestinal disorders, has made days as long as 13 hours worthwhile for her and several other researchers as they contribute to an ongoing project.

Gordon’s proximity to the Longwood Medical area, where some of the top hospitals are clustered, means that “collaborations are possible with some of the major hospitals and researchers in the world,” says Dr. Angie Cornwell (biology).

Last summer, she and Courtney Olbrich ’18, a biology major, worked on a project with Dr. Lisa Spencer ’95, assistant professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.

They’re continuing that project with Holly and with Dilanjan Anketell ’18, another biology student. Dr. Cornwell and the students are mainly performing tests at Gordon, but also regularly commute to Beth Israel.

Dilanjan Anketell ’18, Courtney Olbrich ’18 and Holly Huang ’18

“Last summer, the main goal was to work on breeding and genotyping four different types of double-mutant mice,” Dr. Cornwell says. “During the last academic year, the breeding pairs were successfully established, so this summer, we have been able to characterize the mice and test them in trials.”

“We are studying inflammatory disorders including inflammatory asthma and allergies of the gut, like food allergies, and we are trying to understand the role that eosinophils play in contributing to the inflammation,” she says.

The researchers knocked out expression of specific genes only from the eosinophils in the double-mutant mice. Now, they’re comparing allergy responses between the mutant mice and normal mice, to see whether or not the double-mutant mice have less inflammation in response to the allergen. The purpose of the study is to “understand the signaling pathways involved in order to identify possible gene targets for therapy in human trials,” Dr. Cornwell says.

To that end, Courtney is working on a “lung inflammation study, modelling what inflammatory asthma would look like,” she says, and Holly is focusing on the small intestine to understand eosinophil function in health and disease.

The students are “really refining their surgical excision skills,” says Dr. Cornwell “They’ve been doing all kinds of techniques to be able to isolate mouse eosinophils from lung, intestine, blood, spleen and bone marrow.”

Those are new skills; “most of the things we’re doing in this particular project are not necessarily things you’d do in class,” Courtney says. They’re gaining “hands-on [experience], actually doing stuff as opposed to just reading what other people are doing,” adds Holly.

Dr. Cornwell explains, “Typically, if you take a science class with a lab, it goes three hours, but real experiments can’t be squeezed into three hours.”

That sometimes means working on weekends, and with live animals. “It’s not a typical work week,” says Courtney. “Some days you might not be doing any lab work, just reading papers and learning what’s being studied elsewhere in the field, and some days you’re just completely in the lab.”

The hands-on experience is important, but students are also gaining other skills. They’ve connected to a network of local biotechnology companies, who recently donated materials worth about $15,000, including lab consumables and a large piece of equipment.

Those resources, and the opportunities for learning that nearby hospitals provide, have allowed the students to expand their knowledge and hone skills, says Dr. Cornwell. “To be able to have access to all of that is amazing. We are so grateful for our collaboration with Dr. Spencer.”

By Morgan Clayton ’19, history