Three questions for Alejandro Aballay

Alejandro Aballay, Ph.D., joined OHSU as chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in September 2017. He came to OHSU from Duke University Medical Center, where he was a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology and director of the Center for Host-Microbial Interactions.

Alejandro Aballay recruited as new chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology
Alejandro Aballay is professor and chair of molecular microbiology and immunology, OHSU School of Medicine

What projects are you currently working on and are there opportunities collaboration?

Overall, our research project is highly interdisciplinary so there are numerous opportunities for synergistic interactions with fellow faculty. In the broad context of host-pathogen interactions, we study cell-autonomous processes that are involved in the activation of both defense mechanisms and mechanisms important for maintaining cellular homeostasis, such as the unfolded protein response or UPR. The UPR is crucial to ensure that all the proteins produced by our cells are assembled in an appropriate manner for their proper function. Thus, the UPR plays very important roles in cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and aging. Indeed, we have recently published a study that highlights the importance of protein homeostasis in aged animals. We also study how cellular pathways are controlled at the whole animal level by the nervous system and how animals respond to infections by eliciting different behavioral responses. Along these lines, we are partnering with Dr. Nathan Selden at OHSU to start exploring potential connections between neural stimulation and inflammation in humans.

What is the most important aspect of support that OHSU provides to you currently and how would you like this or other support to grow in the future?

Interdisciplinarity. This is a relatively condensed campus with highly collegial investigators that work on different angles of similar problems. There are also resources to recruit more investigators together with different units to enhance interdisciplinarity. I would like to advocate for more resources for fostering research among existing laboratories at OHSU that can address an important biological question from different perspectives and using different sets of tools and skill sets. I’m specifically referring to seeding grants to foster interdisciplinary research among investigators at different departments and institutes at OHSU.

A hypothetical: If you could have one tool that would solve a seemingly impenetrable problem in your work, what would it do? You have unlimited resources to design this tool, so think big.

This is a fun question, but it requires some background. Given the simplicity of the neural system of the model animal we use, Caenorhabditis elegans, we can dissect specific neural circuits that control highly sophisticated intracellular signaling pathways that play crucial roles in the defense response that an organism mounts against an infection. All animals, including humans, appear to rely on similar mechanisms to control the activation of the immune system that protects us against not only infections but also against our own cells, when they become cancerous. However, this response must be fine-tuned because inflammation accounts for major physiological, metabolic and pathological responses to infection. Tools such as nanoelectrodes that we could employ to dissect specific neural circuits involved in the control of inflammation and to activate or inhibit the participating neurons would be most useful. This could let us control deficient or excessive inflammation, which can lead to infection, cancer or conditions such as Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

About Three Questions

This Q&A series features OHSU School of Medicine faculty members, leaders and staff talking about their work with the goal of getting to know them and different areas across the school. View past articles (login required). Interested in being featured? Want to nominate a colleague? Contact us.