Leaning into the Immune System’s Complexity

By designing new tools that can analyze huge libraries of immune cells and their targets, MIT’s Michael Birnbaum hopes to generate better T cell therapies for cancer and other diseases.

Michael Birnbaum, PhD

At any given time, millions of T cells circulate throughout the human body, looking for potential invaders. Each of those T cells sports a different T cell receptor, which is specialized to recognize a foreign antigen. To make it easier to understand how that army of T cells recognizes their targets, MIT Associate Professor Michael Birnbaum, PhD, has developed tools that can be used to study huge numbers of these interactions at the same time. Deciphering those interactions could eventually help researchers find new ways to reprogram T cells to target specific antigens, such as mutations found in a cancer patient’s tumor. “T-cells are so diverse in terms of what they recognize and what they do, and there's been incredible progress in understanding this on an example-by-example basis. Now, we want to be able to understand the entirety of this process with some of the same level of sophistication that we understand the individual pieces. And we think that once we have that understanding, then we can be much better at manipulating it to positively affect disease,” Birnbaum says. This approach could lead to improvements in immunotherapy to treat cancer, as well as potential new treatments for autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, or infections such as HIV and Covid-19.

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