Brittany Hartwell, PhD

Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota

Brittany Hartwell, Ph.D., received a 2022 Michelson Prize for: “Engineering albumin-hitchhiking intranasal vaccines with enhanced transmucosal uptake to promote immunity.

Award-winning research proposal: To combat the global HIV epidemic and evolving threats such as SARS-CoV-2, immunization strategies are needed that elicit protection at mucosal portals of entry to halt transmission. Immunization directly through airway surfaces is effective in driving mucosal immunity, but poor vaccine uptake across mucosal barriers is a major limitation. Dr. Hartwell’s winning proposal uses a strategy of ‘albumin hitchhiking’ that enables an intranasal vaccine to efficiently bypass mucosal barriers in the nose in order to promote stronger mucosal immunity.

Dr. Brittany Hartwell’s research in immune-engineering combines perspectives from biomolecular engineering, drug delivery, and immunology to develop molecular platforms that can target specific cells and tissues of the immune system to direct the response, with a particular focus on ‘tuning immunity’ through the mucosa. This work has applications ranging from the development of antigen-specific immunotherapies that induce immune tolerance against autoimmune disease to the development of targeted vaccines that induce immune activation against infectious disease. Before starting as an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Minnesota in the Fall of 2021, Dr. Hartwell was a postdoc with Darrell Irvine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a postdoc, she was affiliated with the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard. Her postdoctoral research on developing intranasal vaccines was recently featured on the cover of Science Translational Medicine and recognized with a Koch Institute Image Award. Dr. Hartwell obtained her Ph.D. in biomolecular engineering with Cory Berkland at the University of Kansas as a Madison and Lila Self Graduate Fellow. Dr. Hartwell received her B.S. in chemical and biological engineering from Iowa State University.

What drew you to the fields of biomolecular engineering and immunology?

As an undergraduate in chemical engineering at Iowa State University, I started out with a desire to go to medical school but realized as an upperclassman that the field of biomedical engineering would be a better fit for my combined interests in medicine and engineering problem-solving. I obtained my Ph.D. in biomolecular engineering at the University of Kansas while working with Cory Berkland, whose lab focused on tailored drug delivery: how can we design drugs with physical and chemical properties that allow them to be delivered to the correct place in the body at the correct time? Successfully answering this question calls for a mix of creativity to design an effective drug delivery system, knowledge of medicine and biological systems, background in engineering concepts like mass transport and fluid mechanics, and an understanding of biomolecular properties – which I found to be an excellent fit given my interests and background in chemical engineering. My Ph.D. project focused on developing an immunotherapy for multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurodegenerative autoimmune disease. As I learned more about MS and autoimmunity, I became fascinated with immunology, the sophistication and interconnectivity of our immune systems, and the possibilities for using engineering to intervene and direct the immune response. I pursued a postdoc in Darrell Irvine’s lab at MIT to gain more expertise in immunology, where my passion for this area grew as I worked on developing targeted mucosal vaccines.

What is the potential impact of your research on people’s health?

Immunization strategies that elicit immune protection at mucosal portals of entry are needed to halt transmission and combat long-standing epidemics such as HIV and persisting threats such as SARS-CoV-2 and its continually emerging viral variant. However, parenteral vaccines typically elicit poor mucosal immunity, and only a small number of mucosal vaccines have reached licensure, most of which are based on live attenuated pathogens that naturally infect mucosal surfaces. Yet live attenuated vaccines can face manufacturing challenges, poor stability, and safety concerns, and in general, cannot be used by transplant patients and others who are immunocompromised. In contrast, recombinant protein-, peptide-, or polysaccharide-based subunit vaccines are safe, stable, and highly manufacturable but historically have exhibited poor immunogenicity when applied to mucosal barriers due to poor uptake. Thus, developing albumin-hitchhiking intranasal vaccines that can more efficiently deliver vaccine components across mucosal barriers has the potential to address an urgent unmet need for effective mucosal vaccines against a broad range of infectious diseases, including HIV, SARS-CoV-2, influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and cytomegalovirus (CMV).

How will the Michelson Prize help you with your future research and career?

The Michelson Prize will provide critical funding to help launch my independent lab’s research on intranasal vaccines that use a strategy of albumin-hitchhiking for enhanced uptake across mucosal barriers. We will be investigating vaccine design, defining uptake and mucosal immune responses, and correlating this with functional immune protection. Additionally, the recognition of this award will bring exposure to the importance and relevance of mucosal vaccine research and to the work my lab is doing in this area.