Asthma researcher Sara Herrera de la Mata wins BioLegend Graduate Fellowship in Immunology

Herrera de la Mata aims to understand how asthma turns deadly

Asthma researcher and Ph.D. student Sara Herrera de la Mata is on a mission to uncover how mild asthma turns into severe, potentially deadly asthma. Researchers know the shift is driven by a change in immune cell function, but it’s tough to figure out why exactly things go downhill for some patients.

Asthma researcher and Ph.D. student Sara Herrera de la Mata

Asthma researcher and Ph.D. student Sara Herrera de la Mata

Now Herrera de la Mata is closer to finding answers, thanks to support from San Diego-based BioLegend Inc. As the latest BioLegend fellow, Herrera de la Mata will receive $50,000 in funding over the next year to fuel her graduate studies.

“It is great to get this support,” says Herrera de la Mata. “As an international Ph.D. student, there aren’t many grants I can apply for, so receiving the BioLegend fellowship is very important for my career as I work to understand the mechanisms involved in the development of severe asthma.”

The BioLegend Graduate Fellowship in Immunology is facilitated by the Program in Immunology, a collaboration between La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) and UC San Diego. Herrera de la Mata is studying asthma as a joint member of the Vijayanand Laboratory at LJI and the laboratory of Professor Xin Sun, Ph.D., at UC San Diego.

“This research is very important to understanding why some patients with asthma develop severe disease that is refractory to current treatment,” says LJI Professor Pandurangan Vijayanand, M.D., Ph.D. “Sara’s research will open doors to new treatment options.”

Herrera de la Mata is using a technique called single-cell RNA-sequencing to analyze immune cells from a very important collection of clinical samples. These samples come from a large cohort of patients in the UK with well-characterized mild asthma and severe asthma (unresponsive to treatment), who developed the disease in either childhood or in adulthood. 

“The importance of our research is that we’re looking at samples collected directly from the airways, where the disease is taking place, of a wide group of asthmatic patients,”  says Herrera de la Mata. Because these patients were clinically followed for several years, Herrera de la Mata is able to sequence their immune cells and see where things went wrong. “These samples are very precious due to the difficulty in sample collection,” she adds.

“We can look at samples from the airways and the blood of these patients and monitor them over time,” says Herrera de la Mata. “It will make a big difference if we can understand how the mechanisms contributing to severe disease pathogenesis of asthma gets started.”

Studying the lung environment and immune cell function may be important outside of asthma, Herrera de la Mata notes. She hopes her work can apply to other diseases where immune cell function is compromised. 

Her end goal is to help guide the development of better asthma therapies. Therapies today can save lives, but they don’t work for all asthma sufferers. Those with severe asthma are especially hard to treat. Herrera de la Mata hopes to close that gap by taking a closer look at the immune cell players driving asthma severity.

“We need to understand what we can target with new treatments,” says Herrera de la Mata.

Learn more about asthma research at LJI