James L. Carmon Scholarship Award 2018
Erin Baker, a doctoral student in genetics, is studying the molecular mechanisms governing thymus aging that could be used to treat disease and improve regenerative therapies. The thymus, which plays a crucial role in immune system function, is the organ where T cells proliferate, differentiate and mature. During fetal stages, T-cell proliferation in the thymus increases rapidly as the organ expands in size. But as people reach adulthood, the thymus loses mass and output of specialized T cells, increasing the body’s predisposition to disease and infection. Baker is employing novel mapping technologies to discover and characterize the molecular mechanisms that control this transition from the fetal expansion phase to the adult maintenance phase. If clinicians could use this knowledge to stimulate T-cell production in immunocompromised patients, debilitating if not deadly conditions—including various cancers and infectious diseases—could potentially become less virulent and even treatable.