University of Massachusetts Amherst

Search Google Appliance

Spotlight Scholar

Life Sciences Detective

Osborne follows hot leads to develop therapeutic treatments for disease
  • Professor of Veterinary and Animal Sciences Barbara Osborne in her lab

“Her lab is thriving,” says Samuel Black, head of the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. “It’s wonderful and generous that at a senior level in her career she has taken on this leadership role in interdisciplinary sciences.”

Since coming to UMass Amherst in 1985, Professor of Veterinary and Animal Sciences Barbara Osborne, a renowned immunologist, has followed her research through a number of twists and turns. “I like to think of my scientific process as being like a detective’s: I follow leads,” she says.

“That means that my work 15 years ago may have looked completely different from what my lab is up to now, or what I’ll be doing in five years.”

In the 1990s Osborne earned international renown as a researcher of apoptosis, or programmed cell death. “We were interested in how a particular protein killed cells,” she says. “Along the way we discovered that another protein, Notch, acted as an anti-apoptotic protein in T cells.” Notch is a signaling protein that spans both sides of cell membrane and determines whether a T cell will become a Th1 (short for “T-helper 1”) cell, useful in mounting immune system responses to viruses, bacterial infections, and other pathogens.

Hematech, a start-up Osborne co-founded in 1999, pioneered the use of cloned animals for the development and production of antibodies for therapeutic uses. It recently developed cattle that can efficiently produce human antibodies expected to help treat viral or bacterial infections, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions in humans.

Now, with support from a 2011 UMass President’s Science and Technology Initiatives Fund, Osborne is working with Greg Tew and Maria Santore of the Department of Polymer Science and Engineering to open the groundbreaking Center for Soft Materials Immunology, where UMass faculty and collaborators are developing biologically compatible synthetic materials that allow the body’s own cellular mechanisms and pathways to control the immune system in order to fight disease.

“As biological scientists,” says Osborne, “we know something about how immune cells work but don’t know how to access the immune cells and deliver desired payloads to them. That’s where polymer scientists can help.”
                             
“Her lab is thriving,” says Samuel Black, head of the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. “It’s wonderful and generous that at a senior level in her career she has taken on this leadership role in interdisciplinary sciences on campus.”

After receiving her PhD from Stanford University and performing postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health, Osborne moved to UMass Amherst. She was nervous at leaving NIH, where she worked strictly within immunology, but on campus found interdisciplinary opportunities and the pool of high-quality graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who have graced her lab over the past 25 years.

Osborne co-authored Immunology, a leading textbook in the subject. She is part of a multi-institutional team of researchers given a $5 million NIH grant to study the role of Notch in the pathologies of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and autoimmune diseases. Osborne has received the NRE Dean’s Award for Excellence and an Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity.

University Relations

September 2011