Environmental Triggers of Autoimmunity


Environmental exposures, including both chemicals and pathogens, have been thought to be triggers in the development of chronic diseases. The Weller Lab studies the role of select environmental exposures in the development of a chronic autoimmune disease called Sjogren's syndrome. This female-predominant autoimmune disease affects 1-4 million people in the United States and is characterized by decreased saliva and tear production, inflammation in the salivary gland tissues and development of autoantibodies. Beyond the significant impact on patients' quality of life, Sjogren's syndrome patients are often diagnosed with other autoimmune diseases, including Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis, and are 40 times more likely to develop non-hodgkin lymphoma. Currently, therapies for this disease are primarily limited to immune suppression or lubrication of ocular surfaces and oral mucosa. Low-level, chronic viral infections in connection with genetic susceptibility factors are thought to be the underlying triggers of this chronic autoimmune disease. Our lab has focused on further characterizing these viral signatures and identifying routes of exposure in patient populations. Projects in the lab utilize viral-genome sequencing, microarray, bioinformatics, molecular biology and cell culture to define the underlying mechanism(s) of autoimmunity. Ultimately, our goal is to understand the underlying triggers of Sjogren's syndrome to further develop preventative measures and/or targeted therapeutics.

Student Role

This project will involve the characterization of novel triggers in the development of chronic autoimmune disease. The student will work closely with principle investigator and members of the research team to receive training in multiple techniques that may include immunohistochemistry to visualize chemical and pathogen-mediated lesions in salivary gland tissue, gene expression analysis, bioinformatics, cell culture, protein, RNA and DNA isolation, and ELISA-based approaches to detect the development of autoantibodies. Student will also be responsible for assisting research team with literature reviews, basic lab maintenance, preparing results for publication and archiving of data. Weekly group meetings will be held to discuss ongoing projects in the lab and to present student's progress, as well as, one-on-one meetings weekly to discuss results and direction of work with principle investigator.


The primary goal of this summer research experience is to offer students the opportunity to gain laboratory experience and hands-on training in scientific techniques, further develop critical thinking skills and to work on a research project aimed at improving the lives of those with chronic autoimmune diseases. The student will also gain experience in extensive literature review, hypothesis development and study design. Together, this summer research experience will provide the foundation for future academic and scientific career development.

Melodie Weller
Assistant Professor


Communication is essential for the advancement of science. The student will work closely with the research team and with the principal investigator to receive training in basic laboratory techniques and to conduct assigned project experiments. Beyond daily interaction and communication with the research team, weekly group and individual meetings will be held to discuss projects, outline assays to be performed, trouble-shoot issues that arise and to gain feedback on progress.