University of Saskatchewan

July 23, 2014   

Smallpox Vaccine Inspires Research Career for U of S Student

Umeshappa hopes to shed new light on how immunity works
Photo of Channakeshava Umeshappa by Scott Bell
May 17, 2010

By Lisa Johnson

Back in his native India, Channakeshava Umeshappa was studying to become a veterinarian when he came across the history of smallpox and recognized the power of vaccination to change the world.

“The eradication of smallpox changed my way of thinking and my career completely,” says Umeshappa, now a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan.

He decided he wanted to work as a research scientist and committed himself to the study of disease and immunity.

He has just been awarded $100,000 over two years by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research as a Vanier scholar. He will study molecules in certain types of white blood cells which he hopes will provide the key to understanding how immunity works.

Umeshappa hopes his research will have a major impact on the design of vaccines against cancer, hepatitis, and AIDS.

“This work is answering fundamental questions, and will be directly applied by immunologists developing new, more efficient vaccines,” says his supervisor Jim Xiang, U of S oncology professor and cancer research scientist.

Umeshappa’s research seeks to understand how “immune memory” works on a cellular and molecular level. When patients get an infection like smallpox for the first time, their bodies will retain the memory of the germ in their white blood cells. This memory protects the patient lifelong from becoming infected again. In the case of influenza, immune memory lasts only a few months.

Scientists know that a certain kinds of white blood cells called CD4 T cells work with CD8 T cells to trigger an immune response and program an immune memory, but they do not understand exactly how and why.

“I’ll try to find out what exactly these cells do to help each other,” says Umeshappa.

“Immune memory is the goal of every vaccination project, but it often fails because we don’t know enough about the interaction between CD4 and CD8 cells.”

These cells are critical to our defences against cancers and viral diseases, so understanding their interaction could provide the key to understanding autoimmunity disorders, aiding tissue transplantation, and developing immunity to cancers and chronic infections such as AIDS.

Vaccines developed using the findings of this research may be used together with other cancer treatments such as irradiation, chemotherapy and surgery to help patients live longer with fewer side effects.

Umeshappa has worked as co-chair and volunteer co-ordinator of the Saskatoon Regional Science Fair, where he works with young students and encourages them to get involved in the sciences.

His parents were happy to hear about the Vanier scholarship. “They said they accomplished their life-time goal,” says Umeshappa.

Noting the Vanier scholarship is important in helping to develop “a leading research scientist,” Xiang is thrilled to have Umeshappa at the U of S.

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Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.

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