Designing the next generation of vaccines

Vaccines are designed to alert our immune system to an outside pathogen and trigger a response. This initial response, known as the innate immune response, is inexact and can target other, healthy parts of the body.  

Jeremiah Kim wants to change that outcome. A graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), Kim has identified compounds that can increase the effectiveness of commercially available vaccines and minimize the complications associated with them.  

“Taking a vaccine is essentially grabbing a megaphone and telling our immune system that something is going on and that we need to respond,” Kim said. “But the message can be loud and unclear. What if, instead of a megaphone, we used a sound mixer? We could adjust the settings specifically to what our immune system needs.” 

Achieving that high level of precision in immune responses drives Kim’s research. By pairing certain compounds known as immunomodulators with pattern recognition receptor agonists, Kim found that he could alter immunological pathways. Early results in lab studies show that adding his compounds to vaccines creates less inflammation and an increase in antibody production. Kim’s initial research focused on vaccines for four types of flu viruses, but preliminary findings also show promise for vaccines for COVID-19, hepatitis B and typhoid.

Science that changes lives 

The son of a doctor and a teacher, Kim saw his parents dedicate their careers to improving other people’s lives. Like his father and older brother, the Glenview native found his passion in the sciences. However, unlike them, Kim decided to forgo medical school for a PhD program focused on immunoengineering.  

“Making a drug or a vaccine that could affect the lives of millions, maybe even billions, of people gives meaning and purpose to my work,” Kim said. “I want to do science that is not too far removed from the real challenges people are facing, and that is exactly why I chose PME.” 

Kim also gives back outside of the lab. In 2022, he cofounded the South Side Science Festival. The inaugural event drew 2,500 South Side residents and gave them the opportunity to participate in hands-on demonstrations, listen to panel discussions, and learn about research happening on campus. The South Side Science Festival continues to be a success, with around 5,000 attendees in 2023. Kim also cofounded peer mentoring and peer tutoring programs, helping students transition to graduate school and encouraging them to build a network outside their labs. He has been president of Graduate Christian Fellowship at UChicago for the past three years, helping to build community and organize events. 

Research powered by AI and automation 

Kim works in the lab of Prof. Aaron Esser-Kahn. His research began as a daunting endeavor: his starting point was a robust compound library that included approximately 140,000 compounds. Two collaborations accelerated Kim’s discovery process.  

The first was a partnership with computer scientists in Esser-Kahn’s lab and Assoc. Prof. Andrew Ferguson to create a machine learning algorithm that identified the most promising compounds. Thanks to this tool, Kim only needed to test 3% of the compounds in his library to find successful lead compounds.  

The second collaboration, with UChicago’s Cellular Screening Center, provided him access to an advanced high-throughput screening. The instruments automate some of the tedious work involved in running experiments, such as moving small volumes of liquids and obtaining data from cells. Both of these collaborations gave Kim time to focus on the hard work of evaluating the compounds’ properties and effectiveness. Today, he has narrowed the number of potentially viable compounds to 15 and is looking to narrow the number even further.  

“This is a great time to be in molecular engineering,” Kim said. “I am excited by my research but my friends in other labs are working on other important global challenges. This is the PhD experience that I wanted.” 

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.