Gene-Wei Li and Michael Birnbaum named Pew Innovation Fund investigators

Gene-Wei Li and Michael Birnbaum named Pew Innovation Fund investigators

MIT researchers will partner on interdisciplinary research in human biology and disease.

School of Science
November 14, 2023

MIT professors Gene-Wei Li and Michael Birnbaum are among the 12 researchers named 2023 Innovation Fund investigators by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Six pairs of scientists — alumni or advisors of Pew’s biomedical programs in the United States and Latin America — will partner on interdisciplinary research in human biology and disease.

A biophysicist, Gene-Wei Li, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Biology, studies how bacteria optimize the levels of proteins they produce at both mechanistic and systems levels. His lab focuses on design principles of transcription, translation, and RNA maturation. Li and his collaborator Katsuhiko Murakami, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Pennsylvania State University, will explore the complex genetics of cyanobacteria.

The pair will look at transcription termination, a key step in cyanobacteria gene regulation that tells the cell when to stop converting genetic information from DNA to RNA. While the mechanisms behind transcription termination are well known in other organisms, the inner workings of this process in cyanobacteria are still largely unknown. Drawing on Murakami’s expertise in structural biology and Li’s knowledge of transcription regulation, the two investigators will establish a model for microbial transcriptional termination in cyanobacteria. This work could unveil new scientific approaches used to study cyanobacteria, photosynthesis-promoting plant cells, and other bacterial groups.

Birnbaum, Class of 1956 Career Development Professor, associate professor of biological engineering, and faculty member at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, works on understanding and manipulating immune recognition in cancer and infections. By using a variety of techniques to study the antigen recognition of T cells, he and his team aim to develop the next generation of immunotherapies.

In the case of people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a bacterium alerts the body’s disease-fighting T cells and triggers an inflammatory response characterized by abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea. IBD affects millions of people in the United States, and cases are on the rise in older adults, yet the cause of this autoimmune disorder is largely unknown.

Dan Littman, a professor of molecular immunology at New York University, and Birnbaum are looking for IBD’s root cause. The pair will merge Littman’s work exploring how and why specific bacteria affect T cell development with Birnbaum’s expertise in T cell receptor-antigen binding in an effort to characterize the specific microbes and antigens that drive these harmful responses in the gut. Together, their work could offer new treatment avenues for IBD, such as novel therapies targeting pathogenic microbes or T cells.

In 2018, Birnbaum was also named a Pew-Steward Scholar for Cancer Research.

“An interdisciplinary approach to research is critical to uncovering scientific breakthroughs and making lasting change,” says Donna Frisby-Greenwood, senior vice president for Philadelphia and scientific advancement at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Pew is thrilled to support this exceptional group of investigators, whose collective efforts will help move the needle in important areas of health and medicine.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported more than 1,000 early-career scientists spearheading high-risk, high-reward research across a variety of disciplines. In 2017, Pew launched the Innovation Fund to spark scientific collaboration among alumni of its biomedical programs in the United States and Latin America.