Dr. Evangelia Bellas in her lab.
Joseph V. Labolito

The National Institutes of Health has announced the winners of a crowdsourcing competition for innovative ideas on New Approach Methodologies, or NAMs. The Complement Animal Research In Experimentation (Complement-ARIE) Challenge prize competition offered $1,000,000 in total prize money to diverse teams with ideas for new ways of using NAMs to conduct basic research, uncover disease mechanisms, and translate knowledge into products and practice.  

Bioengineering Professor Dr. Evangelia Bellas is part of the winning team, "Population Diversity in Responses from Vaccination," led by Rebecca Pompano from the University of Virginia. Additional team members include Chance John Luckey, University of Virginia; Jennifer Munson, Virginia Tech; and Aarthi Narayana, George Mason University. 

The team received $50,000 towards their project developing an in vitro model using human cells to simulate interactions between the brain and immune system while simultaneously accounting for diverse populations including age, sex, race, and metabolic state (affected by leanness or obesity). This several organ-on-a-chip system would be the first of its kind. 

Once developing this platform, the team plans to replicate aspects of infection and viruses that affect the brain, as well as test clinical vaccine candidate's efficacy in protecting against said viruses.  

In replicating these viruses in an in vitro model, the hope is to eventually accelerate the vaccine testing and approval process. As the approval process is especially slow for brain and immune diseases, having easily accessible models developed from human brain cells will allow an earlier start to human testing in the clinical trial process, without testing on actual humans. 

The model will be exploring neuro-endocrine responses, which is where Bellas and her lab come in. She will provide the endocrine component, the adipose (fat) cells, to this project, and explore how fat tissue interacts with the immune and nervous system cells, provided by other researchers.  

Properly modeling population diversity is crucial for vaccine trials, as approved vaccines are typically distributed to large portions of the human population. It is necessary to understand how vaccines can affect all types of people. 

"We don't want to find out after a vaccine has been approved that one group is not going to do as well in response to it," explains Bellas. 

In their testing, the team will mimic various types of biological variables such as age, sex, race and ethnicity, obesity, etc., by manipulating the cells from the different systems in the model. 

Bellas' focus will be to mimic obesity within the model, which can be done in many ways, by isolating cells from patients with obesity or feeding fat cells a high fat diet.  

Since receiving the Complement-ARIE prize, the team plans to start their research as soon as possible. 

View the Population Diversity in Responses from Vaccination abstract and additional winning solutions on the Complement-ARIE website