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Janelle Ayres receives Young Faculty Award (YFA) from DARPA

Janelle Ayres

Salk scientist Janelle Ayres has received an award of $500,000 over two years, with the possibility of an additional $500,000 for a third year, from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to further her research on bolstering a person's microbiome to help their body overcome an infection. Ayres, assistant professor in Salk's Nomis Foundation Laboratory for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, is one of 24 to receive DARPA's Young Faculty Award (YFA).

"There is a disconnect between our methods for treating infectious disease and our understanding of the mechanisms that keep us healthy during infection," says Ayres. "With DARPA's support, I hope to develop a better understanding of how the body's microbiome helps defend it against infections and how these mechanisms might be enhanced to improve disease tolerance."

DARPA, which is part of the US Department of Defense (DoD), is proposing a new approach for medical countermeasures against biological threats by shifting away from eradicating pathogens and instead finding therapies for disease tolerance. "Support for basic biomedical research that is aimed at identifying new ways to combat infectious diseases rather than the traditional antimicrobial-based strategies is important and timely, especially given the rate at which infectious diseases are evolving resistance to traditional methods," Ayres says.

In pivotal studies, Ayres was one of the first to demonstrate that animals encode disease tolerance defense strategies and that these defense mechanisms are crucial for survival of lethal infections. A main goal of Ayres' research is to elucidate disease tolerance mechanisms by studying how the body controls and repairs the collateral damage generated during interactions with bad microbes. She is taking an innovative approach grounded in mathematical and evolutionary predictions that uses the beneficial microbes that inhabit our digestive system for damage-control therapeutics.

In September, DARPA hosted a one-day site visit at West Point Military Academy for YFA recipients. A number of such visits are hosted by DARPA around the nation each year to give awardees the opportunity to learn more about DoD research and technology used in the field. YFA recipients and the West Point faculty gave presentations about their work. "The experience was quite unique for a biomedical scientist," says Ayres. "I was exposed to cutting-edge research conducted by scientists in fields distant to my own, including engineering and robot science. Bringing together such distinct researchers will certainly facilitate powerful collaborations."