Associate Professor Susan Kaech, Ph.D., is one of 50 U.S. researchers in the inaugural group of Early Career Scientists named by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The award, which includes a research grant of $1.5 million over six years, will support Kaech’s research on memory T cells, immune system cells that provide long-term protection by “remembering” pathogens that have previously caused infection.

When so-called naïve T cells encounter a new pathogen, they become activated and multiply into millions of effector T cells. These effector cells are armed with weapons that potently inhibit the replication and spread of the pathogen, or directly kill cells in the body that have already succumbed to infection. When the infection subsides, most effector T cells die, but a small number (5 to 10 percent) survive as memory T cells, providing continuing protection against reinfection by the same agent. It is this process that underlies the immunity seen after common infections such as chickenpox or that provided by most vaccines used today.

By using genetic techniques to better understand how and why this small proportion of effector cells becomes memory T cells, Kaech hopes to find ways to develop more effective vaccines.

“I feel extremely fortunate that my lab’s contributions have been recognized so highly by my colleagues,” says Kaech. “This is a very exciting time for the field, and my lab is well positioned to make significant progress in understanding the molecular mechanisms that regulate memory T cell development. This award will allow us to work faster and to pursue novel and riskier ideas that will hopefully lead to several interesting discoveries.”