Leading immune system discovery at the molecular level

Jenny Ting, PhD, a UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center member and a William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Genetics, has studied genetic and molecular mechanisms behind immune system development for more than three decades at UNC. Now she’s helping to lead two major federal center grants to further vaccine development and boost our understanding of immune responses to viruses.

Leading immune system discovery at the molecular level click to enlarge Jenny Ting, PhD

Since she found out that she could study the immune system down to the molecular level of individual genes and proteins, Jenny Ting, PhD, has been hooked.

Driven by her own intellectual curiosity along with the desire to make research findings that would ultimately help others, Ting has spent more than three decades at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying the intersection of gene regulation and the immune system.

“I was pretty amazed by all of the possibilities that we have in exploring the immune system,” said Ting, a William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Genetics and a UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center member. “The whole system is really amazing – how the body finds a way to defend itself against everything harmful.”

Ting is now spearheading two, multi-million-dollar, collaborative research efforts to understand how certain viruses evade the immune system, and to use nanoparticles to make better, nanoparticle-based vaccines to trigger an immune response to disease. She was the No. 2 top NIH-funded researcher in the country in 2014 in the field of Microbiology and Immunology, according to a ranking by the North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research.

For Ting, the route to academic research in the field of immunology was gradual. She liked high school biology, and found it was something she was good at. She had a great genetics teacher as an undergraduate at Illinois State University. After getting her doctorate in microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University, she found her passion as post-doctoral fellow at the University of Southern California School of Medicine microbiology department working on a project to discover immune cells in the brain.

 Ting then came to North Carolina, taking her first job in the state as a research associate in immunology and microbiology at the Duke University Medical Center. She had set out to study how genes are regulated to control immune system development, she said.

“I thought that if I want to spend the next 10 years figuring out something, I wanted to do something important,” she said. “So I set out to understand how our genes control immune system development.”

Ting was recruited from Duke by a mentor, Jeffrey Frelinger, PhD, who is now a professor in The University of Arizona College of Medicine Department of Immunobiology. He had moved from the University of Southern California to UNC-Chapel Hill. When she found out she was offered the tenure-track job at UNC-Chapel Hill, she remembers physically jumping up and down in excitement.

“To this day, I’m absolutely delighted that that was the decision I made,” Ting said, reflecting on the move in a speech she made as the 2010 Norma Berryhill Distinguished Lecturer, an honor that recognizes the medical school’s most able scientists and scholars.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, her early work involved research into the regulation of genes that code for cell-surface proteins that can trigger immune cells called T-cells. Those proteins can cause T-cells to recognize and fight foreign invaders or cancerous cells. And they can also dictate why organ transplants fail -- as they can cause the immune system to recognize transplanted cells as foreign. Ting received a grant early on to study one protein called HLA-DR that’s involved in activating T-cells. She and her collaborators discovered DNA promoter sections that turn on downstream genes coding for the cell-surface markers that activate T-cells.

“We were the first to define the DNA sequences that control genes known as Class II Major Histocompatibility genes, which are important in transplantation and in T-lymphocyte activation,” she said.

Her lab also characterized a family of proteins called NLRs that help regulate the immune system. Those proteins can boost the immune system’s inflammatory response, she said. Changes in the genes that code for those proteins can lead to inflammatory diseases and other problems.

“The NLR genes are very complex and are involved in a range of cellular functions, but all help control inflammation – which is now understood to be tightly linked to cancer, metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes, and contributes to Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury,” she said.

She explained that there’s great value in understanding the immune system at the molecular level.

“By better understanding the immune system, you might be able to figure out ways to control it -- so that if it goes haywire, you might be able to tone it down a little bit, or maybe you want to activate it to maintain a good immune response,” she said.

Ting is now also the principal investigator for two major federal center grants. One of those projects is funded by a five-year, $10 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study how the immune system recognizes viruses, and the pathways that are triggered when immune cells recognize invaders. That grant was awarded in March 2014 and is a collaboration with four other lead UNC researchers.

Ting is also principal investigator on a five-year, $18 million grant from the institute to study how to use synthetically-made nanoparticles to make better vaccines in a collaboration with investigators from UNC, Duke University and Liquidia Technologies. That collaborative project also began last year.  And as part of a separate project, she is now collaborating with other investigators on campus to use nanoparticles to improve cancer vaccines.

Both projects involve the work of multiple investigators working together – which Ting said is imperative to life science and medical research as the field has become more sophisticated and specialized over time. And she said UNC is a “spectacular” place for that kind of collaborative work because of the openness and collegial attitude of researchers across campus.

“One of the true joys of coming to work here is the interaction with all of my colleagues,” Ting said in the Berryhill lecture in 2010.

And she also found another aspect of working at UNC that was key to her success: an environment that allowed her to be a mother of two and a scientist.

“When I started, I was determined that I would not give up having a family for a career,” she said. “I did not have the terminology for this, but of course, now it is called ‘having it all.’ It is unquestionable in my mind that if I were at a less hospitable environment and not at UNC, this goal would have been much harder to reach.”

Media Contact: Laura Oleniacz

919-445-4219

laura_oleniacz@med.unc.edu