Juan Mendoza receives Milstein Young Investigator Award

Juan Mendoza, assistant professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, has received a Milstein Young Investigator Award from the International Cytokine and Interferon Society (ICIS), which promotes the original research of scientists in the field.

Mendoza will receive his award on October 20 at the 7th annual ICIS meeting in Vienna. He will also give a lecture about his research during the award ceremony.

“I am very honored to be selected as a recipient,” Mendoza said. “I am grateful to my postdoctoral mentor Chris Garcia, my collaborators, and ICIS, through which I have met a wonderful community of scientists advancing the frontiers of immunology. We are all excited for the new discoveries on the horizon that our members will make.”

Mendoza studies interferons, a group of signaling proteins in the immune system. Interferons broadcast the “red-alert” state in cells; when a cell is infected by a virus or a tumor starts to form, interferons are released to warn the healthy cells to heighten their defenses. This interferon communication pathway is completed once the interferons bind to the receptors on the surface of cells.

However, the interactions between the interferons and the cell surface receptors are typically very weak, so the interferon-receptors complexes are unstable and transient. Using evolutionary techniques, Mendoza and his collaborators have successfully engineered stronger binding affinities between these proteins, enabling entire complexes to be isolated and visualized using X-ray crystallography.

Solving the structure of the complexes has also allowed the researchers to unearth new biology and explore the potential of new drugs. For example, in the March 2019 issue of Nature, Mendoza reported the structure of the interferon-γ-receptor complex and an engineered drug candidate for a broad range of cancers, including lung, myeloid leukemia, melanoma, colorectal, liver, cervical, and pancreatic cancer, based on the structure of interferon-γ. This drug is potentially more effective than the natural interferon-γ analogue and may elicit fewer side effects.

The structure-function relationships of immune proteins feature heavily in Mendoza’s research, which adds yet another flavor to the immuno-engineering theme at Pritzker Molecular Engineering. Mendoza’s expertise contributes to PME’s ongoing efforts to deepen the understanding of the human immune system and to develop new therapeutics to tackle pressing health challenges.

“Juan has made significant contributions to our understanding of interferon-receptor complexes, which has great potential for the development of more effective treatments with fewer side effects for a wide range of diseases,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of PME. “The Milstein Young Investigator Award is further evidence of his impact in the field.”