For as long as she could, Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D., resisted a call to basic science research. She grew up outside Osaka, in the Kensai region of Japan, with a physicist father who spent long nights studying. The lifestyle initially did not appeal to her. But later, as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, she discovered immunology, and found she could no longer deny her innate attraction to science.
Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology and of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has built a career asking research questions that examine accepted tenets within the field of immunology. Her doctoral thesis, also at the University of Toronto, created a wave of surprise in 1998 by suggesting that vaccines work by presenting antigens to T cells through white blood cells—not muscle cells, as previously thought.
More recently, Iwasaki and her lab members set out to challenge conventional thought about why the common cold spreads more readily in the winter months. Researchers assumed rhinoviruses evolved to function best in cooler climes—and in the nasal cavity, usually colder than the rest of the body. But when her team incubated the virus in airway cells in a warm environment, it not only survived, but grew, when the host’s immune cells lacked key defense genes.
These studies suggested it may be the host immune response, rather than the virus, that determines the virus’s growth. The immune system itself appears “impaired at the lower body temperature compared to the core body temperature,” Iwasaki says. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last January, suggest that colder temperatures “dampen” cell receptors designed to detect rhinoviruses, and therefore the immune system never gets a memo to attack.
In parallel, Iwasaki’s team is investigating the immune defense against influenza viruses, particularly among older adults. In the U.S., more than 90 percent of deaths from influenza occur among adults over 65. A vaccine that helps older adults fight the flu would mark a huge breakthrough—and Iwasaki is hopeful that will come.
Since she started her lab at Yale in 2000, Iwasaki’s peers have frequently recognized her work. In 2003 she received the Wyeth Lederle Young Investigator award from the Infectious Diseases Society of America. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund recognized her research on the pathogenesis of infectious diseases in 2005. The American Association of Immunologists awarded her the BD Biosciences Investigator Award in 2011. And in 2012 the American Society for Microbiology honored her work on the role of autophagy, or “self-eating,” in antiviral immunity with the Lilly Research Award.
What drives Iwasaki’s productivity? “The fun of it,” she says. Next, she wants to figure how to fight viruses by harnessing the infection-fighting power of T cells, rather than relying only on antibodies, as most current vaccines do. Such work could have implications for the treatment of hiv and the herpes simplex type 2 virus.
At home, Iwasaki can puzzle out experiments with her husband, Ruslan M. Medzhitov, Ph.D., the David W. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. And their two daughters, ages 5 and 7, routinely drop immunology-related vocabulary into conversation, she says.
This suggests yet another accomplishment: she’s passed on the fun of science.