UTHealth student selected as Research and Mentorship Program Scholar through the HIV Vaccine Trials Network

Andrew Braun photo
M.D./M.P.H. Program student, Andrew Braun

HOUSTON – Andrew Braun, a student at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in San Antonio, has been selected for the 2018-19 cohort of Research and Mentorship Program (RAMP) scholars through the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN).

Braun is studying for the dual M.D./M.P.H. degree on the school’s San Antonio campus.

Braun will be completing a research project at the Fred Hutchinson Research Center in Seattle from Aug. 2018 through June 2019. This includes a $70,000 grant to support lab-based research. Braun’s project is titled “Evaluation and optimization of the activation-induced marker (AIM) assay to phenotypically and functionally profile HIV candidate vaccine-induced CD4 helper T cell subsets.” 

“The selection of Andrew as a RAMP Scholar is an example of how our M.D./M.P.H. program prepares students to engage in innovative research across the United States,” says Melissa Valerio, Ph.D., regional dean of UTHealth School of Public Health in San Antonio. “The program allows students, and later, alumni, to address population health through use of both a solid foundation in public health and medicine. This is a great example of the application of a lab-to-community translational research model, T-1 to T-4, where knowledge translates from the basic sciences to new treatments, clinical trial findings to practice and public health application to improve outcomes in the greater population.”

According to its website, the HVTN, in collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is “investing in the next generation of HIV prevention researchers” through RAMP by “providing African American and Latinx medical students with opportunities to conduct independent research while receiving mentoring, project and salary funding, training, and professional development opportunities.”

Through the project, Braun aims to

  • develop and optimize the stimulation procedure and extend the staining panel of the current AIM (Activation Induced Marker) assay protocol (11-markers) to 26 functional and/or immune-phenotypic markers of interest using the new FACSymphony flow cytometer;
  • use the improved (Aim 1) AIM assay to investigate the functionality and phenotype of CD4 helper cells in response to different HIV-1 vaccine candidates and benchmark against the validated ICS assay used by the HVTN laboratory; and
  • optimize the AIM assay for bulk or single cell isolation of antigen-activated CD4+ T helper cells in cryopreserved specimens following vaccination with distinct HIV-1 vaccine candidates for down-stream analysis.

This means Braun will be using technology such as flow cytometry (a technology used to examine characteristics of cells in a stream of fluid as it passes through a laser) and the new AIM assay during his project. He will be examining a type of T-cell (the cells that help fight infection in the human body) to study the constitution of and functionally characterize T-cells that have been exposed to HIV vaccine antigens.

Previously, studies have used ICS (which stands for Intracellular Cytokine Staining) techniques to analyze these cells. He says that such techniques are limited in the types of analysis that can be performed as the cells are dead at the end of the ICS process. With the AIM assay, cells are still alive at the end of the process. This allows for more information to be gathered through techniques like genetic testing such as T cell receptor (TCR) sequencing or gene expression profiling (RNASeq).

Braun will be working under the supervision of Antje Heit, P.D., Ph.D., and Stephen De Rosa, M.D.

“I hope to use my M.D./M.P.H. to improve the lives of people on a population level,” says Braun, who is interested in research, implementing public health programming and interventions, and policy related to OB/GYN issues. “Although doctors interact with patients on the individual level, it is fundamental for physicians to understand what is happening to larger populations in terms of chronic and infectious disease, nutrition, environment, and health policy. Public health allows us to study these larger trends, which can then be applied at the micro-level for doctors to better treat their patients one-on-one. This combination of perspectives will make me a more aware and informed physician so that I can serve my patients, community, and world in the best way possible.”

Beginning as a pre-medical student studying microbiology, Braun says he was, “intrigued by the ubiquity of the microbial world, and the clinical significance of microbes.” He added on a major in international studies to expand his focus to include medicine in a global context.

“The juncture at which scientific knowledge and global perspectives meet ignited my interest in public health,” says Braun. “I became interested in public health and how it looked at health care from a preventative and population-based lens.”

During a summer program at Harvard called Fostering Advancement through Enrichment Training in Science, he volunteered with “Take the Test Boston” to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS in Roxbury, Mass., and worked on a related research project. He became interested in M.D./M.P.H. programs after that, and began the program with UT Health San Antonio Long School of Medicine and UTHealth School of Public Health in San Antonio.

Many students choose to complete the dual M.D./M.P.H. degree to give them a broader view of health care to better serve them as physicians. This can be helpful when working with a variety of people from diverse populations with known health issues, and can help when reading research studies and interpreting data. UTHealth School of Public Health offers the M.D./M.P.H. dual degree in conjunction with five medical schools across Texas. There are also dual degrees such as the D.D.S./M.P.H.; J.D./M.P.H.; M.S.N./M.P.H. and seven others.

Recently, the UTHealth M.P.H. degree was ranked first by the Healthcare Management Degree guide. Read more here.

— Written by Shannon LaDuke