News of last week's fete in Manhattan by animal welfare organizations honoring her with a new Lasker Fellowship put Jeanne Kwik in rare company at the podium. First, there was a team of dogs who aided rescuers in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Then, there was a pig who leaped into action, Lassie-style, to save a woman suddenly wracked by a heart attack.
Kwik, a fourth-year graduate student in biology, handled the news with her usual aplomb.
"During the luncheon," she said, "I'll try to get as close to the pig as possible so maybe I'll get my picture in The New York Times."
Although she didn't make the Times, Kwik had already captured the notice of both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing for her biological quest to avoid sacrificing animals in laboratory research. Their $15,000 award recognizes her three-year effort to develop an in vitro model for research that would normally require the regular extermination of laboratory mice.
"I didn't really enjoy killing the mice," said Kwik, who has been working to understand the effect of cholesterol on the body's autoimmune response. "But because I needed to study the spleen in order to do the research, I usually had to kill the mouse first. Then I realized that while there are definite benefits to using mice, I really wasn't interested in the immune systems of mice. I'm interested in the human immune system. It's more complicated, but since the technology is available, I developed a new model using human blood."
Under the guidance of Professor Michael Edidin, she has investigated conditions under which T cells kill other cells. In particular, she has zeroed in on T-cells' tendency to attack other cells they perceive as foreign, no matter whether the "foreign" cells are virus-infected cells or transplanted tissue.
One important finding she made involves a molecule called MHC-Class1, which immobilizes under conditions of very low cholesterol, becoming a compelling target for T-cells. By understanding the interaction of these variables, Kwik hopes to identify ways that immune responses can be manipulated. Practically, the research could help the medical community develop new methods for fighting viruses and bring light to the question of why the body sometimes rejects transplanted organs.
Initially, Kwik's studies required her to sacrifice a few dozen mice for her experiments. When she realized that she could conduct the same research in vitro with human blood, she applied for the fellowship--"a happy fit," she calls it--that will now pay for her fifth and final year of graduate research.
The body that now makes a sacrifice for her work is that of her adviser, Professor Edidin, who volunteers to provide his own blood for her experiments, an arrangement that goads Kwik to comment: "I have probably the only adviser--on this campus, anyway--who actually bleeds for his graduate students vs. the other way around."
The ceremony in New York occurred on Feb. 2. The Lasker Fellowship, funded by the Lasker Center for Humane Alternatives, will be given annually now by CAAT and the ASPCA.