by Violet Wallerstein
Dr. Barker of the Biology Department is a trained immunologist. Her research focuses on immune responses to viruses—specifically inflammation responses to hopefully help HIV research.
Her lab works on proteins inside of cells that respond to viral nucleic acids or nucleic acids in the cytoplasm and lead to an early immediate immune response. Dr. Barker describes inflammation as the cells’ first defense when nucleic acids come into the cell, and she is interested in this research as there are primates that are infected with SIV or simian immunodeficiency virus. These primates live healthy lives and do not develop AIDS, but the only difference in the diseases is how the inflammation occurs immediately following the infection.
A large part of the research consists of removing proteins out of the cell by deleting the DNA sequence that encodes them. This is done to see what they are responsible for in the inflammation process. After this is done, the cells can be treated with viral DNA or viruses to compare the inflammation process. These proteins responding to viral DNA may also respond to our own damaged DNA, and therefore may be associated with cancer and aging. Dr. Barker’s lab has recently started more experiments in this area to study this role of proteins.
One of the roadblocks of the lab’s research is that they are working with mammalian cells in cultures; the cells do not always cooperate in growing at the rate that they need them to. Contamination and managing the cells are the main issues of these experiments.
Dr. Barker started this project here at Drew because she has been working on HIV and inflammation responses since she was a first-year undergraduate student and continued to do so in graduate school. In explaining why she likes her work, Dr. Barker said, “We get to see new things everyday. I like the ability to discover new things and to explore the unknown, but these things are potentially really relevant to human health.” It became really obvious to Dr. Barker that inflammation was a key part of HIV research, so she did her postdoctoral research in inflammation.
Dr. Barker teaches microbiology, immunology, emerging infectious disease and virology, and her office is on the first floor of the Hall of Sciences. Stop by to hear more about her research!