False-colored microscopic image of worms

Immune responses from allergies and helminths may not be so different

Worm parasites and allergies are both under investigation by the laboratory of Dr. Elia Tait Wojno (pron. Tate Voy-no). Dr. Tait Wojno is interested in understanding why there are very similar characteristics in the human immune response to these two very different maladies. She has come a long way since she studied with Nobel prize winner Dr. William Campbell as an undergraduate; now as a professor studying immunology and parasitology, she is able to return that mentorship to the students in her lab and at the University of Washington.

Elia Tait Wojno

Elia Tait Wojno, PhD
Assistant Professor of Immunology
University of Washington

The path to parasites

Dr. Tait Wojno’s fascination for biology and worm parasites started as an undergraduate at Drew University, while studying parasitology with Dr. William Campbell. “It was his passion for the subject and his recommendation that led me to pursue a PhD at UPenn.” Later during her PhD she studied immune parasitology, or how the body’s immune system responds to parasites. “My studies in this area were very exciting and fulfilling and paved the way for me to develop the type of research that I currently undertake in the lab.” Currently Dr. Tait Wojno’s lab uses many different approaches, including flow cytometry, to study worm parasites that cause helminth infection and how they affect the lung and intestine.

Hel… what?

These parasites are pretty creepy-crawly. A few seconds on google images will tell you this. In addition, helminths are responsible for significant challenges in global public health. Helminth infection is caused by worm parasites and almost 2 billion people are infected worldwide. “Morbidity related to those infections in terms of anemia, failure to thrive in children, and limited cognitive development in children are very real consequences. In addition, our livestock can be infected with these parasites, resulting in a huge effect on the economics of the food supply chain.”

What is the link between helminth infection and allergies?

”Interestingly, the immune response during worm infection looks very similar to the immune response that occurs during allergen exposure.” Understanding the key that occur in both cases will be helpful in understanding parasite pathogenesis and allergic disease, and in developing new treatments for each. “We have seen broadly in the cancer field and in autoimmune disease, and in infectious diseases, that if we can target the immune system, manipulate it, ask it to work for us to achieve therapeutic outcomes, that those approaches can be very successful.”

Don’t we have preventive or therapeutic treatments already?

“In allergic disease we have an expanding suite of different drugs and management approaches, but many remain relatively non-specific. There is a lot of room to translate our understanding of basic immune responses into targeted therapies to limit allergic disease. There are zero vaccines for helminth infection in humans, and improved knowledge of anti-helminth immune responses could be useful for developing therapeutics or new vaccine strategies to prevent infection.”

Everyone needs support

Dr. Tait Wojno has been well funded throughout her career as a researcher, but credits much of her success as a woman in science to her exceptional mentors, specifically Dr. Christopher Hunter, her PhD mentor at UPenn, her postdoc mentor Dr. David Artis, and Dr. Yasmine Belkaid. “Yasmine, an Immunologist and prominent researcher at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, has been a tremendous mentor and very supportive as I have grown my program. I met her when I participated in an intensive summer course in the biology of parasitism, held at the Marine Biological Lab (MBL), Woods Hole, MA.”

What advice would you provide other women in science?

As mentors, thought leaders, and scientists, it is important to encourage graduating PhD students to explore the opportunities offered by academia, industry, policy, and government. “Fifteen to twenty year ago, the emphasis for PhDs out of large universities was to remain on the academic track and become a Principal Investigator. Now the landscape has changed, and graduates should investigate an array of career options.” Dr. Tait Wojno believes PhDs can find very rewarding careers as group leaders in both academia and industry but need the necessary tools for success in whatever path they choose.

Discover the many different career paths available in science
Get educated on a technology core to Dr. Tait Wojno’s lab, flow cytometry