SPUR 2021: The Role of Chronic Viral Exposures in Autoimmunity


Chronic environmental pathogen exposures are potential triggers in the development of autoimmune 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. Low-level, chronic viral exposures in connection with genetic susceptibility factors contribute to the underlying mechanisms of this chronic autoimmune disease. The Weller Lab has focused on further characterizing viral signatures and identifying routes of exposure in Sjogren’s syndrome patients. Projects in the lab utilize viral-genome sequencing, microarray gene expression analysis, bioinformatics, infectious disease epidemiology, immunohistochemistry and cell culture to further define the role of chronic viral exposures in the development of autoimmunity. Ultimately, our goal is to understand the mechanism(s) of viral-mediated triggers of Sjogren's syndrome to 1) identify routes of pathogen exposure, 2) further define mechanisms supporting viral persistence and 3) develop targeted therapeutics.

Student Role

This project will involve the characterization of viruses associated with the development of Sjogren's syndrome. The student will work closely with the principle investigator and members of the research team to receive training in multiple techniques that may include immunohistochemistry, ELISA-based approach to detect viral proteins and antibodies to viruses, immunoprecipitation to isolate viral proteins for further characterization, viral sequencing and pathway analysis. Student will also be responsible for assisting research team with literature reviews, preparing results for publication and archiving of data. Weekly group and one-on-one meetings will be held to discuss ongoing projects in lab and to present students’ research in progress.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

The primary goal of this summer research experience is to offer students the opportunity to gain laboratory experience, 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 disease. 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.

Remote Contingency Plan

The contingency plan for the student in case the SPUR work must be done remotely would consist of epidemiological studies of global and local infectious disease datasets, utilizing in-house and public viral sequencing datasets to identify novel viral signatures associated with autoimmunity and further analysis of in-house and publicly available data sets to better understand the underlying mechanisms of Sjogren's syndrome. This work can be conducted 100% remotely with regular virtual meetings with the research team and PI or in combination with in-person research if there is partial restrictions on in-person research during SPUR 2021 summer program.

Melodie Weller
Assistant Professor

School of Dentistry

My mentoring philosophy is collaborative work and communication for the advancement of science. The student will work closely with the research team to receive training in basic laboratory techniques and will gain independence while conducting assigned project experiments. My lab is welcoming and friendly and we are always willing to take the opportunity to teach and answer questions. Beyond daily interaction and communication with the research team, weekly group meetings and individual meetings with the PI will be held to discuss projects, outline assays to be performed, troubleshoot issues that arise and gain feedback on progress. This experience will set the student up for the advancement towards their future goals like graduate school, medical school or dental school.