How do receptors of the immune system specifically recognize targets, how does recognition lead to immunological outcomes, and can immune recognition be enhanced to better treat disease? Research in Brian M. Baker’s laboratory addresses these questions using a diverse array of structural, biophysical, and immunological approaches. One of the goals is to improve immunological therapies for cancer.
Dr. Baker, Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies in the College of Science at the University of Notre Dame, has a long-standing interest in molecular recognition in the immune system. His work focuses on types of immune cells called ‘T cells’ that recognize antigens on abnormal cells, such as virally-infected cells. However, T cells can also recognize antigens on cancer cells. Enhancing T cell recognition of tumor antigens can therefore lead to stronger anti-cancer immune responses. Baker uses a combination of biophysics and structural biology to understand the specific molecular details that give rise to T cell recognition. This information, in turn, can enable Baker and colleagues to engineer better T cells that are more effective at targeting tumors.
At Harper Cancer Research Institute, our goal is to help exceptional basic scientists like Baker apply their unique skills to solving outstanding problems in cancer. To this end, Baker’s research focus in this area was bolstered by an Advancing Basic Cancer (ABC) Research grant from the Walther Cancer Foundation (walther.org) and the Harper Cancer Research Institute. The ABC grant mechanism is designed to pair scientists from different disciplines in novel ways in the fight against cancer. Baker collaborated initially with immunologist Peter Velasquez (formerly at Indiana University School of Medicine, South Bend). Currently Baker collaborates with renowned tumor immunologist Michael Nishimura at the Loyola University Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center to use gene-engineered T cells to target cancer in patients with melanoma and liver cancer.
This enthusiastic collaboration between Baker and Nishimura underscores the mission of the Institute to create a movement of interdisciplinary research to fight cancer.