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Abby Burtner 

Major: Biochemistry
Mentor: Chloe Adams, Department of Biochemistry; Neil King, Department of Biochemistry


Current research project: De novo design of Toll-Like Receptor binders for vaccine development


Abby is a junior in the Interdisciplinary Honors program studying Biochemistry. She is broadly interested in immunology and protein design. She currently works in the King Lab at the Institute for Protein Design on a project designing de novo proteins to bind Toll-Like Receptor 3 (TLR3), a key receptor that activates the innate immune system. She has previously been involved in other research projects examining the skeletal diversity of squirrels and the origin of bat flight in the Santana Lab in the UW Biology Department and in examining zebrafish craniofacial phenotypes at the Maga Lab at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Her research background in evolutionary and computational biology alongside her Honors Chemistry coursework at UW has inspired her interest in the world of protein design. In her free time, Abby enjoys reading, hiking, and running around Seattle and the PNW.


Translate your work so that we can all understand its importance
Traditional vaccines use live or weakened pathogens to elicit an effective adaptive immune response, but these vaccines can lack safety (i.e., for immunocompromised individuals). Subunit vaccines, on the other hand, are safe, stable, and readily engineered, but struggle to elicit a strong immune response as they don’t contain the whole virus. Therefore, these next-generation subunit vaccines require “sidekicks” called adjuvants (substances that stimulate the immune system) to increase efficacy. However, many currently used adjuvants lack well-understood mechanisms or wide applicability across vaccines. For example, aluminum salt has been a widely used adjuvant for decades yet we still lack a strong mechanistic understanding of it. There is a need for new adjuvant platforms, and protein-based adjuvants are appealing because they are stable, can be easily engineered, and can be co-delivered with antigens on subunit vaccines. Toll-like Receptor (TLR) proteins are a group of promising vaccine adjuvant targets, as they bind pathogen-associated molecular patterns to activate the innate immune system. This project aims to design, test, and characterize a protein-based adjuvant that can bind TLR3 and activate the immune system for use as an adjuvant candidate to improve vaccine efficacy. This project has wide-reaching public health implications, as vaccines offer the potential to improve the health and lives of countless individuals.



When, how, and why did you get involved in undergraduate research?
I started undergraduate research during Winter quarter of my freshman year (early 2021 during the pandemic) after applying for an opening on the URP’s Undergraduate Research Database. I wanted to get involved with research primarily to engage with biology, a subject I love, outside of the classroom.


What advice would you give a student who is considering getting involved in undergraduate research?
I would advise them to be picky about their mentor because your choice of mentor can really make or break your experience. I have been extremely fortunate to have wonderful, supportive mentors and it has made all the difference for both my undergraduate plans and future career plans, but not everyone is that lucky. So definitely make sure you and your mentors’ goals and work-styles align before committing yourself!