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Destined for Science, Amelia Escolano, Ph.D., Develops New Vaccination Strategies to Outsmart HIV-1, and Other Highly Mutating Pathogens

September 9, 2021

Scientists developed COVID-19 vaccines in record time — less than a year after the genome of the virus was sequenced, countries started authorizing use of multiple vaccines. But the virus is rapidly changing, and new variants have been emerging that are more likely to overcome the protective barrier from vaccination.

Amelia Escolano, Ph.D., who became an assistant professor at The Wistar Institute in September, wants to help science regain the advantage. During her postdoctoral studies at The Rockefeller University, she pioneered a new form of vaccination against HIV. She proved that this type of vaccination regimen involving sequential immunization would be necessary to induce broad protection against HIV. At The Wistar Institute, one of her first research goals will be wielding what she learned in her postdoctoral work to develop universal vaccines against HIV-1, other viruses — including cancer-associated-viruses, and tumor neoantigens.

Branching Out

For Amelia, everything clicked about being at Wistar. “It is exactly the kind of place I was looking for,” she said. She thinks the size of the institute is just right for sparking discussion and collaboration. Amelia is already feeling the support of her new colleagues, and excited about all the disciplines she will be exposed to through interactions with scientists at neighboring academic institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania.

Although her postdoctoral project at The Rockefeller University centered largely around HIV, Amelia looks forward to casting a wide net in her own lab. “The fact that the Cancer Center is here is going to open up new avenues of research and synergies,” Amelia said. She is already brainstorming with several new colleagues at Wistar about how they could collaborate to design vaccination strategies against cancer–associated viruses and tumor neo-antigens.

A Scientist is Born

Amelia cannot think of a time when she did not want to be a scientist. Both of Amelia’s parents were chemists so it would seem to be in her blood.

Amelia’s first hands-on experience happened when she was only about four years old and she received a little microscope as a gift. She dashed outside to collect bugs and puddle water from the backyard of her home in a small village in northern Spain and then sprawled out on the floor to study the specimens using her new equipment. Amelia’s decision to focus on biology was also a no-brainer as soon as she started learning about the cell in school. “I was actually fascinated by the cell and the size of molecules, and how such tiny things could have such interesting functions,” Amelia said.

Amelia had some setbacks in her career and sometimes muses about why she has stuck it out in science. “I must really love it” is the only answer she can provide. “The satisfaction you feel when things finally work makes you forget all the failure the months before,” Amelia said. It is the thrill of knowing that “you had this important question and then your experiment gave an answer and nobody else at the moment knows it,” she explained.

Next Steps

At the heart of the strategy to make a universal HIV-1 vaccine is injecting a series of different versions of a viral component, in this case part of the HIV-1 envelope protein. This strategy is believed to be necessary to induce a broadly protective immune response against HIV-1. Amelia showed during her postdoctoral studies that the first of these injections had to be with a highly engineered envelope protein and that using more natural versions of this component for subsequent injections helped achieve the desired result: broadly neutralizing antibodies that can protect against many different strains of HIV-1. She will continue animal studies at Wistar to optimize sequential immunization approaches.

When Amelia started hearing about COVID-19, she immediately thought that SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19, could be a target for sequential immunization. She suspects this virus will be an easier target than HIV-1 because of the lower mutation rates. She thinks a series of injections with natural versions of spike from a range of newly emerging SARS-CoV-2 strains may lead to broad protection from multiple variants. Amelia sees no limit to the applications of this approach to viruses and bacteria. “The same approach can be translated for all types of pathogens in general that mutate over time,” she said.

Building a Platform

Amelia expected some challenges at the time of recruiting personnel as an early-stage investigator, however, she has been pleasantly surprised. “People are interested in the projects,” Amelia said. “My previous work on vaccine design was well-timed so that I can now join the current research workforce aiming to develop new vaccines”.

As a Finalist in the prestigious Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists in 2020, Amelia has been more motivated than ever to use her special platform to push for the advancement of women in science and all STEM fields. In addition to trying to support and inspire the many female scientists she has mentored, Amelia speaks out to increase representation of women in different scientific environments. She hopes to continue these efforts taking advantage of her new position at The Wistar Institute.

As she grows her research program, Amelia has no shortage of hobbies to help take her mind off science’s many roadblocks. She loves running and just about all outdoor activities. She also disconnects from work by drawing cartoons of characters that live in her imagination. Amelia has even entertained the idea of illustrating books to promote science to help give the next generation of scientists the excitement she had as a young kid.

Written by, Carina Storrs, Ph.D.