Interview with Andrew Kau, MD, PhD
2015 - ARTrust Faculty Development Award
Andrew Kau, MD, PhD
Washington University School of Medicine
Project: “The Microbiota and Mucosal Immune Responses in the Development of Asthma”
Award term: July 2015 - June 2018
1. What is your research focused on and what are you hoping to discover?
My project is focused on understanding how microbes colonizing our gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts influence the development of allergic diseases, particularly asthma. Over the past decade, we have begun to appreciate the incredible diversity of bacteria and other organisms that live in association with essentially all of our bodies’ surfaces (the human microbiota). These organisms can have a wide range of effects on us—both beneficial and harmful. For instance, they help us digest our foods, synthesize vitamins and prevent infections. But the very complexity of the human microbiota makes it extraordinarily difficult to determine which organism is having what effect on the host. As part of my post-doctoral work with Jeffrey Gordon, we have shown that we can identify and recover microbes that are targeted by the host immune system and that these microbes are capable of altering the host’s physiology.
There are two parts of my project: a human clinical study and a translational mouse model. In the human study, I am collecting respiratory, oral and fecal specimens from healthy and asthmatic individuals to characterize the microbes present in each group. I hope to not only answer the question of “who is there” but also identify microbes targeted by the immune system and culture them for additional studies. The second part of my project is to use an animal model of asthma to understand how commensal microbes affect the development of allergic diseases. One way that I plan to go about doing this is to colonize germ free mice with groups of human microbes, isolated from our clinical study, to determine the effects of these microbes in vivo. In addition, I am identifying components of the “conventional” mouse microbiota that have the potential to affect allergic airway sensitization. I have a particular interest in comparing and contrasting the respiratory and gastrointestinal microbiota in their abilities to shape allergic airway sensitization.
2. Why did you choose Allergy/Immunology as your field of study?
During the period of time when I was finishing medical school, there were a number of really interesting journal articles that suggested that microbial exposures could influence the development of allergic diseases. Simultaneously, my thesis work on the gut commensal and sometime pathogen, Enterococcus faecalis, had me thinking that the role of environmental microbial exposures was really understudied as a contributor to human health. When I started looking around for fellowship opportunities, allergy/immunology stood out as the specialty that had the deepest interest and appreciation for exploring these relationships. Furthermore, when I started meeting and working with allergists, I realized that the A/I community is incredibly appreciative and supportive of physician-scientists. So, in the end, the choice was a no-brainer!
3. Who are your mentors?
I have been really lucky to have many great mentors that have helped guide me over the years. Len Bacharier at St. Louis Children’s hospital has helped me out quite a bit with the clinical study we are doing. I have gotten a lot of good career guidance from my division chief, Jim Wedner and also through the AAAAI, namely Mitch Grayson. Finally, Jeff Gordon has been my post-doctoral advisor and is my primary scientific mentor. I have been fortunate to be able to call on his support and guidance as I’ve progressed through his lab and onto research independence.
4. How has this grant money assisted in your career development?
I received the career development award at what I consider a crucial time. Since I was just beginning to look for tenure track research opportunities when I received the award, I feel certain that the award helped establish the potential of my research plan and created many of the subsequent opportunities that I have had. Also, as I have been establishing my lab, I have found that the award has been transformative scientifically because it has allowed me to expand the scope of our scientific questions and plan more ambitious experiments.
5. What grants have you received since your 2015 ARTrust award?
I am currently gathering data for a planned R01 submission within the next 1-2 years.