Gee-whiz! Microbiology student wins Graduate Women in Science fellowship

Jessie Haugen Frenkel explains lab techniques to high school students in blue lab coats
Graduate student Jessie Haugen Frenkel, shown here at a CSU World TB Day event, was named a national 2019 Graduate Women in Science fellow. (John Eisele/CSU Photo)

Driven by the global impact of tuberculosis, microbiology Ph.D. student Jessie Haugen Frenkel is researching ways to more effectively combat the disease, which she believes will be via a preventative method like a vaccine.

To provide some protection against tuberculosis, the leading cause of death by infectious disease, a vaccine called bacilli Calmette-Guerin (BCG) is available in countries with high rates of tuberculosis. It’s most effective in babies and children, and offers decreased protection in adults, but it doesn’t provide full immunity.

Working with Dr. Randall Basaraba in the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories, Frenkel is looking at how combining BCG with a commonly-prescribed antidiabetic drug called Metformin impacts the effectiveness of the tuberculosis vaccine.

“It’s been found in other research that Metformin can enhance protection when given concurrently with a vaccine,” Frenkel said. “BCG doesn’t provide full immunity to tuberculosis, so it’s a good model to see if it could improve the vaccine.”

Jessie Haugen Frenkel, left, and Alexandra Todd started CureGear, a science-inspired clothing line. (John Eisele/CSU photo)

One of five female researchers from around the country to win the Graduate Women in Science National Fellowship, Frenkel is poised to expand her tuberculosis work. As co-founder of CureGear, a science-inspired apparel brand that aims to support research and increase awareness about science among women and girls, Frenkel finds the fellowship especially meaningful.

“There are a lot of amazing and powerful women in science, and we wanted to bring that to light with CureGear. The fact that I applied for a GWIS fellowship ties it all together,” she said, referring to the award by its acronym, fittingly pronounced “gee-whiz.”

First, she wants to determine whether using Metformin with BCG decreases disease outcome. With the additional funding from the fellowship, and if the use of Metformin does indeed heighten protection against tuberculosis, she can then explore why Metformin decreases the severity of the disease.

Metformin enhances protection of some vaccines by boosting the generation of memory T cells. When a person is immunized, the body is exposed to a specific disease and creates a “memory” of it via T cells, triggering an immune response the next time the cells encounter the disease.

CureGear leggings feature images of tuberculosis cells. (John Eisele/CSU photo)

“We want to better understand the immune response to tuberculosis,” Frenkel said. “Then we can go back and create an improved drug treatment or vaccine.”

While understanding how Metformin interacts with BCG is helpful, it likely won’t lead to development of a feasible solution to tuberculosis. Frenkel is hoping, however, that it will improve understanding of the underlying immune response to the disease. If Metformin combined with BCG leads to enhanced protection against tuberculosis, the resulting reaction can be studied to find an alternative solution that creates a similar response to improve overall immunity.

“The fellowship gives me a lot more flexibility to really investigate what’s going on when we give Metformin with BCG,” Frenkel said. “Rather than strictly looking at disease outcome I can look at the T cells and see why they’re functioning this way.”

Frenkel is on track to complete her Ph.D. in spring of 2020, and looks forward to finding a job in industry, preferably with a biopharmaceutical company. Working in a research lab while managing CureGear inspires her to pursue a career that’s a good balance of science and business.

“It’s so hard to communicate science,” Frenkel said. “If I can strengthen my skills to get better at starting conversations with non-scientists, I think that’s really important.”