Interview with Onyinye I. Iweala, MD PhD
What is the goal of your research?
Patients with alpha-gal allergy, characterized by delayed anaphylaxis to mammalian meat, have been reported across the globe, yet we have limited understanding of the mechanisms underlying this condition. With my research, I will explore the role of glycolipids and unconventional T cells in this allergy with the vision of broadening our understanding of glycolipids and unconventional T cells in hypersensitivity disorders. This research may also link tick exposure to an activation and cytokine profile in unconventional T cells that promotes allergic responses.
What made you decide to go into medical research?
I was lucky enough to have phenomenal role models in my parents. My mom had a doctorate degree and my dad was a physician, so from middle school on, seeing their examples, I knew that I wanted to get both a doctorate degree and a medical degree. I was drawn to the field of immunology after taking an undergraduate immunology class in college and my fascination with immunology is what pushed me into medical research and I haven't lost interest yet! With medical research, I find that I can satisfy that drive in me to be curious and to continually question. At the same time, I'm participating in an endeavor that has the alleviation of human suffering and the betterment of humanity at its heart.
What are your future research and career goals?
My overall career mission is three-fold: (1) To make groundbreaking discoveries in immunology that lead to effective therapies for allergic conditions, in particular, idiopathic anaphylaxis. (2) To nurture future generations of physician-scientists in Allergy and Immunology. (3) To promote inclusion and diversity in the field of Allergy and Immunology. For the immediate term, I want to advance the field of food allergy by expanding our understanding of alpha-gal syndrome. I want to focus on innate immune effector cell responses to the atypical carbohydrate food allergen, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal), particularly, the impact of alpha-gal glycolipids on iNKT cells and mast cells in AGS. In the long term, I hope to improve our understanding of mast cell dysfunction in non-clonal mast cell activation syndrome (nc-MCAS), including idiopathic anaphylaxis and to apply the tools for functional genomics to understand the pathology behind this condition; to guide patients and providers managing nc-MCAS; and to inform the design of future therapies for this condition.
How has / will the Faculty Development Award helped you in your career?
The Faculty Development Award will provide critical funding to help me pay for the technical support (i.e. lab technician) and the reagents that I need to get my research off the ground. It will fund the experiments that I need to eventually put me in place to apply for my own independent funding, like an NIH R01 grant.
Who are your mentors?
My primary mentors are Scott Commins, MD PhD; Wesley Burks, MD; Other faculty mentors on the grant include Barbara Vilen, PhD, Evan Dellon, MD, Patrick Brennan, MD PhD, Chris Kepley, PhD.