Minkara Receives NSF CAREER Award To Improve Immune Response With AI

Mona Minkara

BioE Assistant Professor Mona Minkara was awarded a $827,000 NSF CAREER award for “Decoding the Code of Glycan-Collectin Interactions: Computational Engineering of Surfactant Proteins for Tailored Glycan Recognition.” The focus will be to better understand and improve the immune system response to pathogens.

Mona Minkara, assistant professor of bioengineering, received a five-year, $827,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award for “Decoding the Code of Glycan-Collectin Interactions: Computational Engineering of Surfactant Proteins for Tailored Glycan Recognition.”

Through computational analysis and artificial intelligence tools, Minkara will identify methods to better understand and improve how collectins, which are proteins produced by the immune system, bind to sugars, or glycans, located on the surface of pathogens.

Pathogens bind to sugars as a way to avoid detection. The goal of this research is to enable the collectins, which also bind to these sugars, to identify the presence of pathogens more effectively. If the collectins are able to make a fast identification, they can alert the immune system, which can then eliminate the pathogens and minimize harm. These discoveries could drive development of therapies and improve health outcomes.

This research will focus on the early detection and response of the mammalian immune system to viral infections. The initial test case will focus on the Influenza A virus.

“Highly effective immunoproteins will identify the pathogen and attach to it like a flag, alerting the immune system to destroy it,” Minkara says.

She notes that surfactant protein D, a specific type of collectin crucial for innate immunity, is distributed across multiple key areas of the human body, including the skin, lungs, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and gastrointestinal tract. This widespread presence means these proteins are constantly interacting with the external environment, providing them with ample opportunities to encounter and neutralize incoming pathogens. Minkara will elucidate the molecular interactions between collectins and glycans, leveraging this data to enhance our computational insights into these mechanisms. The methodologies will include comprehensive computational analyses, molecular dynamics simulations, docking studies, and in vitro binding assays.

“The power of computational analysis enables us to theoretically design the best form of collectins,” Minkara adds.

To further benefit society as part of the research project, Minkara will create material for the Blind Scientist Toolkit she has developed that teaches non-visual approaches to scientific exploration. The toolkit includes informational cards with notes and guidance on a range of topics, from working with access assistants to choosing assistive technologies.

Minkara is an advocate for scientists who are blind and provides tools that she has designed from her own research to students and faculty who are also blind. Additionally, she is the director of Science in Braille, a group of scientists who are blind and advocate for the inclusion of blind people in STEM.

“We’re not just including blind people in science because it’s good for them,” Minkara says. “It’s good for science to include scientists who are blind.”


Abstract Source: NSF

Related Faculty: Mona Minkara

Related Departments:Bioengineering