Ludmila Prokunina-Olsson is Awarded the 2022 ICIS Mentorship Award

Ludmila Prokunina-Olsson, PhD, Chief, Senior Investigator, Head, Prokunina-Olsson Laboratory, Laboratory of Translational Genomics, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetic sat the National Cancer Institute

Ludmila (Mila) Prokunina-Olsson has been chosen for the 2022 ICIS Mentorship Award in recognition of her significant contributions to the field of immunity and cancer genetics through not only her own seminal discoveries and scientific accomplishments but also through the next generation of scientists she has nurtured, taught and guided. Dr. Prokunina-Olsson’s admiration for diversity and ability to recognize potential, particularly in minority scientists, and then develop a trajectory for their success, have played an important role in establishing the careers of her fellows who then go on to become mentors themselves.

Nominating Mentees:

  • Olusegun Onabajo, PhD, was first a postdoc and then a staff scientist in Mila’s lab and is now Principal Scientist at Genentech working on biomarker development for Infectious and inflammatory diseases.
  • Abdul Rouf Banday, PhD, first joined Mila’s lab as a postdoc and is now starting his lab at the Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute (NCI) as a Stadtman Tenure Track Investigator.
  • Brian Muchmore, MD, spent three years in his mid 20’s working with Mila at a time when he literally had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and is now a combined pediatrics-medical genetics resident at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with broad interests in the fields of genomics and machine learning.
  • Joselin M. Vargas worked in Mila’s lab from 2017 through 2021 and is currently a first-year medical student at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in Nutley, NJ. In her family, Joselin is a first-generation college student and future doctor.
  • Nathan R. Brand, MD‘s first job out of college was working with Mila over several summers and then as a returning fellow; he is now a Resident Research Fellow, General Surgery at UCSF, San Francisco.

Dr. Prokunina-Olsson started her lab at the National Cancer Institute in 2008 focusing on the role of genetic variation in cancer and immunity. This interest was based on her graduate studies of genetics and function of PD1, with seminal findings published in 2002. The first major discovery in her own lab emanated from her research on genetic risk factors for hepatitis C virus infection, leading to the discovery of a novel type-III IFN, interferon lambda 4 (IFNL4) in 2013. Her discovery explained the role of a genetically regulated interferon in the risk of developing chronic HCV and poor treatment responses. This discovery also invigorated research in type-III IFNs. She continued her work by demonstrating the implications of IFNL4 genetics with other diseases including common pediatric infections, liver cancer, and allogenic bone marrow transplantation in patients with acute myelogenous leukemia. She also developed reagents for the research community to continue studying IFNL4 which she continues to share widely. To promote interferon lambda research, in 2018 Mila co-organized an interferon lambda meeting titled, Interferon Lambda: Disease Impact and Therapeutic Potential, that brought together scientists from all over the world to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland to discuss the role of interferon lambda in multiple diseases. She continued her efforts to promote interferon lambda research by running Lambda Zoom meetings during the pandemic and co-organizing another interferon lambda meeting as a satellite of the Cytokine meeting taking place in 2022 in Hawaii.

Dr. Prokunina-Olsson has significantly contributed to our understanding of genetic regulation of important interferon-stimulated genes. She discovered genetic variants that regulated APOBEC3A and APOBEC3B, a class of interferon-stimulated genes. Her lab showed that these enzymes that cause mutations in cancers are regulated by genetic variants that increase cancer risk. These findings have broad implications not only for cancer but for infectious diseases as well. In May of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the world, Mila focused on understanding how innate antiviral mechanisms were contributing to the SARS-COV-2 virus infection. This led to the discovery of a novel isoform of ACE2, a SARS-CoV-2 entry receptor. The newly identified delta ACE2 isoform (dACE2) lacks the first 356 amino acids in the N-terminal and does not bind the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This led to the understanding that SARS-CoV-2 and interferons induce the expression of dACE2 and not ACE2, which was previously suggested as a mechanism that increased viral infectivity posing concerns that interferons may be detrimental for COVID-19 treatment. Mila also led an important study that showed the role of genetic factors of OAS1 in COVID-19 disease severity.

Despite these accomplishments, Mila has continued to find time to mentor the next generation of scientists, particularly supporting and advocating for minority scientists, where she recognized that a gap needed to be filled in the scientific community.

One cannot read the letters from her mentee nominators without feeling incredibly proud to have someone like Dr. Ludmila Prokunina-Olsson involved in the ICIS.

The Awards Presentation will take place during Cytokines 2022 Hybrid: 10th Annual Meeting of the International Cytokine & Interferon Society, at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, in Waikoloa, Hawaii, and virtually, on Tuesday, September 20th beginning at 16:15.  

The newly established ICIS Mentorship Award recognizes ICIS members who have made significant and sustained contributions to the career development of trainees and to the profession through outstanding mentoring. This award is based on the training experiences and success of the nominee’s mentees, not the mentor’s personal career achievements. For the purpose of this award, mentoring is defined as the process of guiding, supporting, and promoting the training and career development of others. A minimum of three mentees will write a supporting letter on how this person has impacted their development, career and lives, to be submitted together by one of the mentees (an ICIS member). The key roles of a mentor include, but are not limited to, providing:

  • Intellectual growth and development
  • Career development
  • Professional guidance
  • Advocacy
  • Positive role modeling
Cytokines 2017, Kanazawa, Japan, Professor Serge Y. Fuchs, (Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Pennsylvania) L discusses Dr. Olusegun Onabajo’s poster, (National Cancer Institute, NIH) R.
She introduced me to ICIS and noted that ICIS is one of the best organizations for young scientists to gain visibility and was led by a group of talented scientists focused on developing younger scientists. This was fortuitous advice as it led to several travel awards and a young minority investigator award. ICIS in Kanazawa Japan was one of my most memorable life experiences.
Olusegun Onabajo
Principal Scientist at Genentech