Interview with Laura Kiessling

By Dr. Katie Golden

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Laura Kiessling, who runs a lab at MIT and studies the carbohydrates that coat the surface of bacteria. More specifically, she is interested in how these surface carbohydrates are recognized and bound by mammalian proteins to activate an appropriate immune response. This mechanism might be the key to understanding how bacteria are allowed to successfully colonize, rather than infect, the human body. Her enthusiasm for her work, and infectious curiosity about the world, left me both inspired by her research and touched by her humility.

Katie: How do you explain your research to those without your biochemical background?

Laura: Every cell has a carbohydrate coat, and my lab is interested in understanding the role of those carbohydrates. Our research has shown that they seem to function as a face for the cell — a way for cells to recognize each other’s identity. This is important for the host-microbe relationship, so when exposed to a bacteria, our body can ask “Is this friendly? Or is it harmful?” This plays an important role in the body’s immune response.

Katie: How does this relate to the microbiome specifically?

Laura: I like to think of microbes as tenants. They occupy little apartments in our body, and a functional immune system successfully restricts their residence to a very specific space. We see this, for example, in the lung and intestine. Our bodies are able to contain the bacterial so they do not invade other areas and become pathogenic. We are trying to understand the mechanism by which our immune system can do this, and believe it starts with the proteins that bind these carbohydrate coats.

Katie: What are the potential clinical implications of your work?

Laura: We know there are humans that have variations in the proteins that bind the carbohydrates, which leads to increased risk of developing, for example, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). If we understand this recognition and binding process better, we think that the proteins themselves could be used for therapeutics in patients with IBD. These proteins are a natural part of the innate immune response and are naturally designed to keep the bacteria in check, so a potential treatment may be as simple as increasing their level in people with disease.

Katie: How did you become interested in your line of work?

Laura: My career actually started with an argument I had as a graduate student. (She laughs.) I was trained as a synthetic chemist, and was working on a molecule that was an anti-cancer agent. The other chemists were interested in a large component of the molecule that we referred to as “the war head,” but I was curious about this small carbohydrate group attached to it. It had an exotic, unique structure to it. I don’t know exactly why, but I just had this hunch that the carbohydrate was important in recognizing DNA. Of course, my professors thought I was crazy and dismissed my idea. In trying to defend myself, I realized that I knew nothing about carbohydrates! So I decided I was going to learn everything I could about them.

She did just that … and turned out to be right. When I remarked on the fortitude it takes to follow through on her intuition, Kiessling humbly responded, “I just love when I don’t know something, and I have to figure it out!” Her inquisitive nature, not surprisingly, extends beyond her work in the lab. We also talked about her love for abstract art and classical music (she, herself, used to play the French horn). As is true for many great scientists, her discovery and ongoing research seems to stem from the combination of natural brilliance, creativity, and humble curiosity. When I asked her about her move back to Boston, after spending most of her career at UW Madison, she explained, “It is so energizing to engage in these new collaborations. This is the center of the world for biomedical research, and it is very exciting to be here.”