As an Allen Distinguished Investigator Dr. Carolina Tropini to tackle unanswered questions about metabolism and the immune system

February 3, 2021
Story originally published by UBC’s Life Sciences Institute

Dr. Carolina Tropini, an Assistant Professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has been named a Distinguished Investigator by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group.

The award will provide each of four groups of researchers with US$1.5M in funding over a three-year period to pursue projects in health, disease and technology centred on the emerging field of immunometabolism.

As one of 10 new Allen Distinguished Investigators, who will be working together in teams of two or three, Dr. Tropini will explore how immune responses, metabolism, gut microbiomes and environments may contribute to widely varied symptoms and responses to treatment among people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

“I am incredibly honoured to receive this recognition,” says Dr. Tropini, the only Canadian researcher to receive Frontiers Group funding in this round.

IBD affects 10 million people world-wide. It is a chronic illness, and has no cure. “Unfortunately,” she adds, “we do not understand the variability we see in this disease: both the symptoms and response to treatments can vary incredibly, not only between patients, but even at the level of the single patient.”

Tropini shares that today’s award would not have been possible without the incredible mentorship and support she has received from the lead Principal Investigator of her group, Dr. Aida Habtezion (Stanford University School of Medicine), who was invited to submit a proposal for the Allen Distinguished Investigator call last year.

“I am grateful that rather than teaming up with more established investigators, Dr. Habtezion decided to join forces with two early career investigators, Dr. Nandita Garud at UCLA, and me.

“I’m extremely excited about the proposal we submitted,” adds Dr. Tropini, whose own work focuses on determining how the physical environment in the gut affects the microbes that live within it, and how those, in turn, affect our health. “Our lab is very interested in studying IBD, as inflammation creates a highly modified local environment: we need multi-disciplinary approaches to tackle this complex and debilitating disease.”

With funding from Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, Tropini and her team are currently investigating how microbes control the gut environment in laboratory models. She is also collaborating with a group of Canadian researchers on a CIHR team grant to understand how disease-causing bacteria can affect IBD in children. “In this Allen Distinguished Investigators project,” says Dr. Tropini, “we will be working with adult IBD patients, measuring and integrating the response from the host immune system with responses from the gut microbiota, at a fine spatial level.”

Tight links between human health, immunity and how our bodies process what we eat – the intersection of immunology and the metabolism – remains a poorly understood domain in human biology. The topic of metabolism and its intersection with the immune system kept coming up in meetings between Frontiers Group staff and scientific experts aimed at identifying future areas of interest, says Frontiers Group Director Kathy Richmond, Ph.D., M.B.A. As they delved into the unknowns, Richmond and her team realized that any significant progress in these areas could improve human health.

“In so many diseases, a tipping point is reached where entire systems in our bodies are thrown off balance. Studying the complex and fascinating interactions between the immune system and energy metabolism will give us a better understanding of what it means to be healthy and how it might be possible to return those systems to balance after damage or disease,” Richmond said. “The innovative and pioneering visions of these four teams of Allen Distinguished Investigators span a variety of approaches to tackle this exciting area of biomedical research.”

The Frontiers Group will award a total of $6 million awarded for immunometabolism research. Founded by the late philanthropist Paul G. Allen in 2016, the group recommends funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to researchers around the world whose work has the potential to accelerate scientific discoveries or launch entirely new avenues of exploration.

The Allen Distinguished Investigator (ADI) program was launched in 2010 by Allen to back creative, early-stage research projects in biology and medical research that would not otherwise be supported by traditional research funding programs. Including the 10 new investigators announced today, a total of 92 Allen Distinguished Investigators have been appointed.

The Tropini/Habtezion/Garud collaboration is one of four new ADI projects, which include research on human disease, basic biology of the mammalian immune system, and technology development that could impact many areas of immunology and metabolism research.

Learn about Dr. Tropini’s work investigating the causes of gastrointestinal disease such as IBS and IBD