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The 2020 Michelson Prizes for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research are being awarded to Danika Hill, PhD, and Michael Birnbaum, PhD, for separate innovations aimed at defending our bodies from diseases including cancer and HIV/AIDS. Each will receive $150,000 in support of their work from the Michelson Medical Research Foundation and Human Vaccines Project. The announcement comes as the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the critical need for progress in immunology and vaccine discovery.

Hill, a research fellow in immunology and pathology at Monash University, won for “Exploiting T Follicular Helper Cells as an Innovative Tool to Discover Targets for Long-Lived Humoral Immunity.” Using strep A bacteria, she seeks to identify which antigens trigger the immunity protections of our bodily fluids. This could open avenues toward better vaccines for numerous infectious diseases and more effective immunotherapies for cancer.

“The Michelson Prize comes at a critical point in my career,” Hill says. “With the prize, I’ll be able to apply some cutting-edge techniques to study hundreds of thousands of cells in molecular detail.”

Birnbaum, an assistant professor of biological engineering at MIT, won for “Repertoire-Scale Determination of T Cell Recognition and Cross-Reactivity to HIV via pMHC Lentiviral Display.” Studying “elite controllers” — people with HIV who can go for long periods without antiretroviral therapy — Birnbaum searches for optimal vaccine targets to stop the virus. His method can also be applied to diseases from infections to cancer.

“The support provided by this award will let us work faster than would be possible otherwise,” says Birnbaum, who heads a laboratory at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “We will be trying many of our best ideas at once to press this technology into service, in a time where better tools to study infectious disease are clearly needed.”

“My wife, Alya, and I are proud to help Dr. Hill and Dr. Birnbaum pursue their revolutionary ideas,” says Dr. Gary Michelson, founder and chair of the Michelson Medical Research Foundation.

By recognizing investigators under 35, the awards address a major obstacle to medical progress. “Our current system makes it nearly impossible for a young researcher to get funding,” Dr. Michelson adds. “Even the head of the National Institutes of Health identified the advancing age at which investigators receive their first NIH grant as ‘the greatest problem facing U.S. science.’”

Wayne Koff, PhD, CEO of the Human Vaccines Project, lauds the “courage, passion and creativity” shown by Hill and Birnbaum. “Only by thinking beyond conventions will we be able to transform the future of human health,” he says. “I look forward to seeing how the research of our 2020 Michelson Prize winners will contribute to the Human Vaccine Project’s grand vision of decoding the human immune system.”

Hill and Birnbaum were selected from a worldwide pool of more than 200 applicants. They will accept the Michelson Prizes and present key findings from their research during an open webinar on August 13, 2020. Visit Michelson Prizes for more information.