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Geisel Student Awarded Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Fellowship

Alyssa Flores ('19) (Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox)

Alyssa Flores (’19) has been awarded a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Medical Research Fellowship. She is among 79 medical, dental, and veterinary students selected to receive support for one year of mentored and in-depth training in biomedical research.

Heading to Stanford University for the 2017-18 academic year, Flores will be working with researchers in the lab of Nicholas Leeper, MD, director of vascular research and chief of vascular medicine at Stanford. The Leeper Lab studies the vascular biology of atherosclerosis and aneurysm disease.

Flores was drawn to the Leeper lab’s use of genetic approaches to learn more about the root cause of atherosclerosis. She says, “I really liked how the Leeper lab is committed to finding new ways to tackle cardiovascular disease and to do so independently of known risk factors, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure. I really admire their work and hope to contribute to it.”

Leeper and colleagues recently found that efferocytosis—the natural process of clearing dead and dying cells from our bodies—is compromised in people who suffered heart attacks and strokes. They were able to stimulate efferocytosis by using an antibody targeting a specific molecule that is abundant in the atherosclerotic plaque. These antibodies were able to clear the plaques in animal experiments, however, they also caused anemia.

Flores will be working with vascular biologists and biomedical engineers to develop an approach to avoid this side effect.  “Rather than using an antibody, we’ll be working to develop a targeted nanoparticle that can deliver pro-efferocytic molecules directly to the plaque and hopefully cause it to shrink,” Flores says.

The goal of the HHMI Med Fellows Program is to encourage the development of future clinician-scientists. “I’m really excited to be a part of the HHMI community—and to work under the mentorship of Dr. Leeper. There is a lot of learning ahead and it’s a special opportunity to develop skills and train in cutting-edge research.”