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My research is driven largely by the question of how the ecology of an organism affects the development and maintenance of its immune system. Conversely, I am also interested in how the immune system can affect behavior and ultimately fitness. Animals, such as spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) and Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii), that consume other animals are likely exposed to pathogens from their food. Scavenging animals take this one step further and are also exposed to a wide range of potential pathogens that can be found in decomposing carcasses. Modern humans have managed to avoid this problem by eating fresh or frozen food and also by cooking their food. Scavenging carnivores must be able to either tolerate or eliminate the pathogens they obtain from their food without the aid of a freezer or cooking their food. However, the prevalence of allergies and autoimmune diseases is rapidly increasing in human populations, whereas autoimmune diseases are rarely documented in wild animals.
My Ph.D. focused on understanding the immune system of spotted hyenas, and how ecology affects immune function in hyenas. Spotted hyenas are highly social and frequently engage in aggressive interactions; therefore, if a pathogen enters a hyena population and is capable of replicating, it is likely to spread throughout the population. Populations of other large carnivores such as African lions (Panthera leo) and wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) have undergone large fluctuations in population size due to outbreaks of canine distemper virus (CDV) and rabies, but hyena populations remained stable during the same periods. Despite documented seroprevalences of 37%, 47%, and 87% for antibodies to rabies, CDV, and anthrax, respectively, hyena populations under intense study exhibited little or no mortality from disease.
In 2014 I began working to understand why Tasmanian devils do not mount an immune response against genetically mis-matched transmissible tumors. The project was initially funded by a Dr Eric Guiler Tasmanian Devil Research Grant from the Save the Tasmanian Devil and a Sansom Institute grant to develop immunotherapeutics to treat Tasmanian devils that are infected with the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). I am now employed jointly by the University of Tasmania and the University of South Australia, with the majority of my salary coming from a Morris Animal Foundation postdoctoral research fellowship. The approach we are taking is based on similar immunotherapeutics that have achieved unprecedented success in treating human cancer (Science Magazine Breakthrough of the Year 2013). We have made great progress recently and have developed more than 23 new monoclonal antibodies that target the checkpoint molecules CTLA4, PD-1, and B7-H1.
Prior to enrolling as a Ph.D. student at MSU, I worked in the immunology lab of Lieping Chen. Dr. Chen’s laboratory specializes in functional characterization of interactions among cell surface molecules. Much of the research is focused on costimulatory signaling in lymphocytes and how these signals can modulate immune function in relation to cancer and autoimmune diseases. My primary job functions were to produce new hybridomas that produce antibodies against novel cell surface molecules and characterize the antibodies using ELISA, flow cytometry (FACS), Western blots and T cell proliferation assays. As lab manager I was also responsible for day to day operations of the lab and helping with IACUC and IRB protocols.