Member Spotlight: Aaron Morris

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Member Spotlight: Aaron Morris

Our Precision Health member of the month, featured in this Member Spotlight, is Aaron Morris, PhD. Dr. Morris is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering. Morris’s lab, called ‘The PRecision Immune MicroEnvironments’ (PRIME) Lab focuses on using engineered materials and synthetic biology as platforms to: study immune cells, diagnose disease, and develop therapeutics.

PRIME Lab’s long-term vision is to develop non-invasive systems for monitoring immune function within tissues. Along the way, they hope to contribute to a basic understanding of synthetic receptor systems, deepen knowledge of the host-material interface, and design material and cell-based tools for monitoring and treating immune dysfunction. Let’s hear more from Dr. Morris;

  • Tell us a bit more about the details of your current research/projects:

We are really interested in creating implantable diagnostics for immune dysfunction, mostly focused on autoimmunity. The basic idea is that the immune system exerts its ultimate function within tissues, but these functions are hard to measure, particularly if they occur in vital tissues like the CNS. We use biomaterial implants to create alternate sites for monitoring immunity. By subcutaneously implanting a material we can induce a mildly inflamed tissue to form and these tissues contain a wealth of inflammation that is not available in the blood. Much of our work now focuses on materials engineering to improve these platforms and synthetic biology approaches to integrate sensing capabilities within our implants.

  • What is innovative/new/exciting about these projects?

In this work we are leveraging what is typically thought of as a problematic inflammatory response to implanted materials to help us monitor the immune system. This approach is unique and provides us with rich molecular information that would otherwise be impossible to get. This information enables us to better diagnose and monitor disease (in mice) and potentially can lend unique insights into fundamental research as well.

  • What is the anticipated outcome of this research?

We hope to apply these approaches to monitor immune dysfunction within patients for precision health. Ideally these approaches would accelerate and improve diagnosis as well as allow for improved treatment monitoring or selection of a more ideal treatment for a particular patient.

  • How will this work benefit patients and clinicians?

By providing detailed cellular and molecular information about disease progression, diagnosis and treatment for autoimmunity could be improved. This would lead to getting patients on the most effective therapy as soon as possible and preventing damage to their tissues. This could improve quality of life and reduce medical burden by preventing damage instead of treating it after it occurs.

  • How is Precision Health is supporting this research? 

Precision Health funded some of the earliest studies on this work which has led to papers and follow-on funding. Additionally, we have had many helpful discussions and received advice from many folks over the years including those we met through Precision Health.

  • What are your research interests, broadly?

The disease focus of the lab is on immune dysfunction and our technical expertise combines biomaterials and synthetic biology. We work at the intersections of these areas to develop biomaterial and cellular therapies and diagnostics for immune dysfunction.

  • How does your work apply to the field of precision health?

Much of what we do focuses on gathering more detailed information about immunity. The proper function of the immune system is critical for maintaining health and by providing tools that help us understand immune status, we may be able to improve care for a variety of patients.

  • If you’d like, please provide links to recent/significant work.

  • What do you like to do when you aren’t doing research?

Outside the lab I enjoy hiking, cooking, and especially baking breads of various types. Fun fact: I have a wild sourdough starter that I made about 10 years ago and has moved with me through at least 3 three different cities.