People with HIV are living longer today, thanks to successful drug cocktails that are available to those who live in developed countries and can afford them. The HIV situation in undeveloped countries, however, remains catastrophic. This is an outcome that Amy Jacobs would desperately like to change.
Jacobs, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, feels it’s the responsibility of academic medical research to pursue solutions that a pharmaceutical company won’t because they’re just not profitable. “As far as anything that is cheap and available in abundance for underprivileged populations, it’s not there,” she says.
Jacobs considers herself a protein chemist, concentrating on very basic science. She studies the proteins on the surface of the HIV virus and how they get the virus into the cell—the initial step in HIV infection. The goal is to not only develop inhibitors to HIV entry, but also to translate it into something that’s easy and economic to deliver. She has been the recipient of the Harold Brody/Emeritus Faculty Society Award for Clinical and Translational Research for her efforts to date.
“It’s so hard to develop a vaccine for HIV because it’s a virus that affects the immune system. How do you make an immune system fight a virus that infects its own cells? It’s a very interesting problem,” she explains.
Jacobs says several recent trials have shown more promise and that scientists are being creative in their pursuit of this goal. Her approach is in improving upon protein therapeutics, finding novel ways to produce proteins in large abundance inexpensively.
She thinks of proteins as machines. “This is the nanobiology work that I do because I see viruses as a wealth of mechanisms,” she explains. “They’re very elegant in how they enter and take over a cell’s processes. Their structure is even very beautiful. They have a lot of mathematical symmetry. They’re very lean, mean machines.”
Membrane proteins are a particular concentration of her research. “I’m hoping that during my career there is going to be some key finding that helps us to better study membrane proteins—there needs to be some paradigm shift in the field,” she says. “I’d love for it to happen in my lab.”
Jacobs embraces the congenial, collaborative research atmosphere at UB. “I can find help when I need it and can get advice. I feel like I have many mentors,” she notes.
The Iowa native comes from an engineering family. She remembers her father teaching her at an early age about negative numbers. This led to an attraction to chemistry, but she was dissuaded from pursuing it by a school advisor. A youthful fascination with languages steered her into comparative literature, but after a year of study in Italy and earning a degree from the University of Iowa, she decided that the subject would prove difficult as a career. “Too much of the human mind studying itself,” she shrugs. “I could never make it in that field. Chemistry is easier. Here I can count things.”
It was while working in ophthalmic ultrasound on the Iowa campus that her initial love of chemistry was rekindled. “I would go to the eye library and read about the molecular mechanisms of how we perceive light. That spurred me on to chemistry. I just started studying naturally,” she says.
Earning her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Illinois-Chicago and completing her postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute at Fort Detrick in Maryland, Jacobs arrived at UB in 2008 and says the school and the area have been a good fit for her and her family. “I think my background makes it so that a big university is where I need to be,” she relates.
Jacobs adds that she loves Buffalo for many reasons—including the weather.
“I hate to break it to everybody, but the winter’s not that cold here. The Midwest gets down to -10 and -20 and the wind chill would be -40. That’s cold. So it’s warm here with snow. What could be better? The other thing we do is sail. So I have an inland sea and snow. It’s wonderful. The people are nice and laid back. This environment is perfect for us. We couldn’t ask for more. What a beautiful climate.”
These seasonal pursuits are wedged in among her work, which is always percolating in her mind. “It’s good to love what you do,” she says. “I hope also that I can give back and be part of bringing more biotech to downtown Buffalo.”