Studying Our Immune System in Hopes of Discovering New Ways to Treat Fungal Infections

Rutgers' Amariliz Rivera is one of 10 recipients of a $500,000 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award

 

As an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, Amariliz Rivera earned the opportunity to spend a summer in a research lab with MIT students, a summer that changed her career direction.

“It was the first time I realized that I truly loved working in the lab,” says Rivera, who originally intended to become a medical technologist. “It was my first independent research experience where I was given a scientific challenge and the freedom to figure out the answer on my own. It gave me a sense of joy and unique satisfaction that can’t compare to any other feeling.”

Keenly focused on research from that point, Rivera has spent many of the past 20 years advancing her research into fungal infections and immunology. She recently became one of 10 recipients – and the first from Rutgers – of a $500,000, five-year Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award.

The study of fungal immunology is a relatively narrow research field globally, Rivera says, and advances come slowly. But because of the significant loss of human life associated with fungal infections, she remains motivated to fully comprehend how the human immune system responds and protects the body against fungal infections.

“The burden of fungal infections on human health continues to rise due to a significant increase in the number of susceptible patient populations across the globe,” says Rivera, an assistant professor in the Center for Immunity and Inflammation at Rutgers’ New Jersey Medical School. “The best antifungal drugs currently available are often ineffective and mortality from invasive fungal infections remain at over 50 percent. An estimated 1.5 million deaths annually are associated with invasive fungal infections.”

In the next phase of her research, Rivera will attempt to define how monocyte and neutrophil cells – both white blood immune cells – communicate with each other. Building upon what she recently discovered employing mouse models of fungal infection, she aspires to determine whether human white blood immune cells employ similar pathways of communication.

“Protection from pulmonary infection with a fungal pathogen is dependent on the communication and cross regulation of two cells that were previously thought to work independently,” she says. “Now we need to uncover the basis of this communication. How do these cells talk with each other? We think that once we understand what the communication factors are and how they work, we will be able to use this knowledge to help develop new treatments to enhance antifungal defense in susceptible patients.”

Earning financial support has been vital to Rivera’s drive and success. She is particularly proud of becoming the first Puerto Rican female to earn the prestigious Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award. She’s also earned several National Institute of Health awards for qualified minorities throughout her career. Studies in her laboratory are also funded by a five-year R01 award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Rivera earned her doctorate in molecular genetics, microbiology and immunology at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She has been fascinated by the immune system since her doctoral studies, when she focused on developing molecular approaches to limit autoimmune responses. For her postdoctoral training, she joined the laboratory of Eric Pamer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In his lab she was exposed to diverse research projects all focused on dissecting immune mechanisms of defense against infection. This research area fascinated her and shaped the research path she chose to follow.

William Gause, director of the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences' Institute for Infectious and Inflammatory diseases, is excited at the potential of Rivera’s research and says it has already strongly impacted the work of faculty and graduate students within the institute."

“Dr. Rivera’s scientific interests cover an important research area that has been historically understudied,” Gause said, “making her uniquely poised to contribute significantly to the field.”