Teplensky earns Beckman Young Investigator award for promising vaccine research

By Patrick L. Kennedy

It’s an annual hassle: scheduling the flu shot, getting to the clinic, waiting in line—then the unpleasant jab. But imagine if you could safely hit snooze on that task, getting away with one influenza vaccine every two or even three years.

That’s just one potential benefit of a research project led by Boston University College of Engineering Assistant Professor Michelle Teplensky (BME, MSE), who is seeking to lengthen the lifetimes of single vaccines. And with the help of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, there’s a good chance she’ll succeed.

Teplensky was today named one of the 2024 Beckman Young Investigators. She and her team will receive $600,000 over four years to engineer versatile vaccine responses through nanomaterial design, with implications for the treatment of not only the flu but also other infectious diseases including the viruses that cause COVID-19, HIV, and more.

Vaccine design relies on the use of proteins—the important molecules that serve as a target for our immune system. They teach our immune system what to go after when we’re exposed in the future to the pathogen. Using proteins in vaccine formulations has many advantages, but the way viruses keep mutating, it requires a scramble in protein design to keep up, necessitating those yearly shots. “People are doing research now for next year’s influenza,” says Teplensky, “trying to guess what the virus will mutate into, because they need to make a vaccine containing a mutated target protein that will cover that.”

Michelle Teplensky (BME, MSE) with doctoral student Ezra Cho.

What Teplensky proposes is to redesign vaccines using porous nanosized scaffolds made of tunable chemical building blocks. These will determine the rate at which the proteins are released and processed by immune cells, effectively changing the propagated immune response, and ultimately making the same vaccine more effective and longer-lasting.

Because this platform only changes the way the protein gets processed in the body, rather than requiring the protein itself to be modified in the lab, it means a protein can be taken “off the shelf,” Teplensky says, for speedier vaccine development when a new virus or viral mutation arises. “Also, when you put proteins into these nanomaterials we’re using, the vaccines are very stable—and they’re actually shelf-stable, so they don’t require cold storage.” That means savings in transportation and energy costs as well.

The problem of persistent mutations has vexed virologists for years, and Teplensky and her student trainees—a majority of whom are women, and many of whom are either underrepresented minorities, first-generation students, or first-generation Americans—are combining “chemistry, immunology, engineering, and everything in between,” she says, to solve the challenge.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation for awarding this recognition and funding to me and my lab,” Teplensky says. “This is high-risk, high-reward research, and they’re funding us when we’re at the really exciting initial stages, because they can see the potential for future impact.”

Teplensky and the other nine 2024 Beckman Young Investigators exemplify the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation’s mission of supporting the most promising young faculty researchers in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences, says Anne Hultgren, executive director of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. “We are excited to welcome each of these outstanding scientists into the Beckman family, to help launch these extremely creative projects, and to see them reach their full potential.”