My name is Elena Fulton, and I am a recent graduate from the University of Puget Sound, where I earned a B.S in Molecular Biology. Throughout college, I participated in directed research with Bryan Thines and worked to characterize the role of a core protein degradation pathway (specifically focused on F-box proteins) in plant stress response pathways. I also participated in a summer internship in the Bilousova lab at the Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine in Denver, Colorado where I worked on a project geared towards designing full-thickness skin grafts using induced pluripotent stem cells. As a Postbaccalaureate Fellow, I have had the opportunity to work at the SRF Research Center with Dr. Amit Sharma. The Sharma lab focuses on engineering natural killer (NK) cells to selectively eliminate senescent cells from various tissues. Currently, we are characterizing age-related changes in NK cell biology in order to design better methods for rejuvenation which would restore NK cell function in older adults.
Inflammation is an underlying factor that worsens countless diseases. As we age, our bodies undergo a process now called “inflammaging” which results from the chronic circulation of inflammatory molecules that alter the functionality of the immune system. It is unclear exactly where all of the inflammatory signals come from inside the body; however, recent studies have shown that a particular cell type (termed senescent cells) is likely a large contributor to the inflammation which remodels the immune system with age. Senescence occurs when a cell undergoes significant stress or damage which prompts a permanent arrest of cell division. This is largely considered to be a protective mechanism against cancer; however, senescent cells also release many factors into their local environment which cause inflammation. The accumulation of senescent cells with age can contribute to a decrease in immune function and lead to/exacerbate many diseases. Over the past few years, there has been growing interest in designing methods to clear senescent cells throughout the body, so my project is specifically focused on exploring the use of natural killer (NK) cells to achieve this goal. NK cells are known to find and kill senescent cells in the body, but past research has also shown that NK cell function declines with age. I will first characterize specific biological changes in NK cells with age to learn what specific interventions are needed to restore/enhance function, and then I will test different methods of rejuvenation or genetic engineering to see if they can ameliorate the loss of function over time. Donors of various ages will provide blood samples from which I can isolate NK cells, analyze different aspects of function and phenotype across donors, and ultimately test whether our rejuvenation methods result in restored killing capacity against senescent cells. Comparing NK cells across different age groups not only will allow me to assess whether the function of NK cells from older donors has returned to a level comparable to those from young donors but also will set the groundwork for understanding how the local environment impacts NK cell function. Ultimately, I can analyze circulating factors in the blood to identify possible agents/factors that may hinder or support NK cell function over time.