December 30, 2014—(BRONX, NY)—Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University today named Steven A. Porcelli, M.D., the new chair of the department of microbiology & immunology. A noted immunologist, Dr. Porcelli is currently the Murray and Evelyne Weinstock Chair in Microbiology & Immunology and professor of medicine at Einstein.
Porcelli Steven, M.D.Dr. Porcelli graduated summa cum laude from Columbia University, received his M.D. from Yale University and completed a medical residency at Temple University Hospital. He served as fellow and then junior faculty member in the division of rheumatology, immunology and allergy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“Steve Porcelli is an outstanding physician-scientist who has made major contributions to our understanding of how the immune system responds to tuberculosis infection. He has been an excellent mentor to junior faculty within the department of microbiology & immunology and a terrific colleague who is eminently qualified to assume the responsibilities of chairing this superb department,” said Allen M. Spiegel, M.D., the Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean at Einstein.
While an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in the 1990s, Dr. Porcelli discovered the CD1-dependent pathway for antigen presentation to the immune system’s T cells. His work revealed that T cells—thought to recognize only protein antigens—can recognize lipid antigens as well. Those studies aroused Dr. Porcelli’s interest in tuberculosis, caused by a bacterium (Myocobacterium tuberculosis) that is about one-third lipid by weight. He has been studying various aspects of TB ever since.
Dr. Porcelli was recruited to Einstein as the Irene Diamond Associate Professor in Immunology in 1999. Since 2004 he has served as scientific director of Einstein’s Flow Cytometry Core facility and of FACS (fluorescence-activated cell sorting) resources for the Einstein-Montefiore Center for AIDS Research.
As part of his TB research, Dr. Porcelli is working to develop a more effective TB vaccine in collaboration with Einstein scientists William R. Jacobs, Jr., Ph.D., and John Chan, M.D. (Dr. Jacobs is professor of microbiology & immunology and of genetics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; Dr. Chan is professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology and attending physician in infectious disease, department of medicine, at Montefiore Medical Center, the University Hospital for Einstein.) That research has led to a new live attenuated vaccine, built from M. tuberculosis and created by deleting two genes that contribute to the bacterium’s virulence. Mouse studies involving this double mutant vaccine showed that a single immunization was significantly more effective than the BCG vaccine—the only current TB vaccine, now nearly a century old—and also extremely safe.
Another aspect of Dr. Porcell’s TB research involves a subpopulation of lipid-recognizing T cells called invariant Natural Killer T (iNKT) cells, which respond to M. tuberculosis infections. A naturally occurring class of molecules called glycolipids can selectively activate iNKT cells—and synthetic glycolipids called alpha-galactosylceramides activate them even more strongly. In research funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Porcelli is synthesizing different alpha-galactosylceramide molecules and testing whether they can improve the immune response against M. tuberculosis, possibly as “adjuvants”—substances that increase the body’s response to vaccines.
Since receiving his first major independent research project grant in 1996, Dr. Porcelli has been continuously funded as a principal investigator by the National Institutes of Health. His TB research is supported by four major NIH grants with current annual funding totaling approximately $1.36 million. Dr. Porcelli is also supported by a $113,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help develop vaccines to prevent HIV infection.
Dr. Porcelli assumes this post with the departure of Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D., who chaired the department of microbiology & immunology since 2006. Dr. Casadevall has accepted a position at Johns Hopkins. He will chair a department that includes a malaria institute at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.