- Press Release Distribution

LJI-led team wins top Nucleate honors for virus vaccine development proposal

San Diego scientists work with business experts to advance dengue and Zika virus vaccine strategy

( LA JOLLA, CA—A San Diego team, led by scientists at La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI), has won the top prizes in the Nucleate Activator competition. Out of 1,000 initial competitors, the LJI team advanced to the final four teams and swept all the prizes they entered for. Their winning research proposal outlines how scientists could stop dengue virus and Zika virus by developing sophisticated vaccines that activate both B cells and T cells.

Nucleate is a student-led, non-profit organization dedicated to empowering early-stage, life-science startups and emerging biotech leaders. The Nucleate Activator program connects early career researchers with MBA students and entrepreneurs interested in supporting potential biotech start ups.

By communicating the need for dengue and Zika vaccines—and their approach to make those vaccines a reality—the LJI-led team won Nucleate's Alnylam Pharmaceuticals for Scientific Excellence Award; the Genentech Award for Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and the MilliporeSigma Award for Global Impact.

"We were humbled by the jury’s reaction," says LJI Postdoctoral Fellow Rúbens Alves, Ph.D. "Our project was recognized as having real potential, and our team has received support from people who really care."

Alves led the team through the nearly year-long competition process and was thrilled to see the LJI/UC San Diego team advance to the final pitch round. His team members were LJI Instructor Annie Elong Ngono, Ph.D., UC San Diego M.B.A. candidate Angus Wu, and UC San Diego M.D.-M.S. candidate Victoria Smith. LJI Professor Sujan Shresta, Ph.D., served as team mentor.

For the competition, participants were required to develop a plan for a potential biotech startup where they were the co-founders. The team chose "Toga Therapeutics" as their start-up name (after the Togavirus family of pathogens, which the self-amplifying RNA machinery comes from), and developed their company pitch as they advanced through the competition and met with Nucleate mentors.

Toga's pitch builds on nearly two decades of critical research in the Shresta Laboratory. Shresta studies the interaction between flaviviruses, such as dengue, Zika, and Japanese encephalitis, and the immune system. This research has shed light on the importance of a "balanced" immune response that harnesses both antibody-producing B cells to prevent infection and T cells to clear infected cells and regulate the body's inflammatory response.

As Alves points out, previous dengue vaccine candidates have failed because of the broad range of types of dengue virus. Without comprehensive immunity against all dengue "serotypes," vaccinated patients can get actually "primed" for more severe infections, a very counterproductive and possibly dangerous outcome. Dengue virus and Zika virus overlap in many regions of the world, and Shresta has shown that Zika virus infection or vaccine-induced immune response may also precipitate severe dengue. This means vaccines need to address both pathogens. 

To solve this problem, the Toga team proposed a strategy to engineer a safe and effective immune system response using self-amplifying RNA (based on the Togavirus family member-based vaccine platform) to produce stable antigens at a low cost.

In fact, Elong Ngono says this kind of RNA-based platform holds promise because it is versatile. Researchers could produce antigens against flaviviruses and potentially many other viral families. Toga's approach to vaccine antigen production could even lead to new types of cancer immunotherapies. 

As the researchers developed their Nucleate pitch, they relied on Wu and Smith's business expertise to show how this research approach could be financially viable. Through Nucleate, they also connected with a team of professional research and business mentors who helped refine their vision. The LJI Business Development staff also worked with the team to strengthen their pitch.

On May 17, 2023, the Toga team delivered their polished pitch at Nucleate's San Diego Bio and Eco West Activator Final Pitch showcase. The Toga team had their eye on three prizes, and they hoped to earn just one of them. Instead, the judges unanimously awarded the team all three of the prizes they had entered for.

"We've really made people aware that we need a dengue and Zika vaccine," says Elong Ngono. "Working with Nucleate made it possible for people to understand our research and know how to help."

The team now hopes to build on the business expertise they gained through the Nucleate Activator program and spin-off Toga's strategy into an actual biotech start-up.

Alves says the Genentech Award for Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion holds special significance for him. Alves is from Brazil and is from the first generation in his family to go to college. In fact most of the Toga team grew up outside the United States, in Nepal, France, Taiwan, and Cameroon. 

"We say that from diversity comes strength," says Alves. "Different parts of the world have different problems, but we really believe in the same vision: vaccines for all."

About La Jolla Institute

La Jolla Institute for Immunology is dedicated to understanding the intricacies and power of the immune system so that we may apply that knowledge to promote human health and prevent a wide range of diseases. Since its founding in 1988 as an independent, nonprofit research organization, the Institute has made numerous advances leading toward its goal: life without disease. Visit for more information.



Hydrogen battery: Storing hydrogen in coal may help power clean energy economy

Hydrogen battery: Storing hydrogen in coal may help power clean energy economy
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The quest to develop hydrogen as a clean energy source that could curb our dependence on fossil fuels may lead to an unexpected place — coal. A team of Penn State scientists found that coal may represent a potential way to store hydrogen gas, much like batteries store energy for future use, addressing a major hurdle in developing a clean energy supply chain. “We found that coal can be this geological hydrogen battery,” said Shimin Liu, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State. “You could inject and store the hydrogen energy and have it there when you need to use it.” Hydrogen ...

Artificial muscle fibers could serve as cell scaffolds

In two new studies, North Carolina State University researchers designed and tested a series of textile fibers that can change shape and generate force like a muscle. In the first study, the researchers focused on the materials’ influence on artificial muscles’ strength and contraction length. The findings could help researchers tailor the fibers for different applications. In the second, proof-of-concept study, the researchers tested their fibers as scaffolds for live cells. Their findings suggest the fibers – known as “fiber robots” ...

Argonne hosts demo day for Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program

Twenty startups will present their technologies for a clean energy future at this year’s Lab-Embedded Entrepreneur Program (LEEP) Demo Day, June 7, in Chicago. LEEP connects entrepreneurs with resources and innovation ecosystems at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national labs.  In addition to demos from companies currently participating in LEEP, the event at the Sheraton Grand Chicago Riverwalk will also feature a panel discussion where program graduates share insights and advice about successful entrepreneurship. The technologies on display span renewable energy, materials for clean energy and water, batteries, ...

Helping virtual reality reflect social realities

Helping virtual reality reflect social realities
Research on virtual reality is expanding as the technology grows, but too much of that research is being conducted with participants who don’t reflect the general population. The Virtual Experience Research Accelerator (VERA), a $5 million National Science Foundation-funded project, is creating a system to provide researchers with access to large, reliable, diverse groups of participants for an array of research projects on and using VR. “A lot of research in this area suffers from using participant samples ...

New method tracking changes in blood vessels could advance brain disease detection

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — While age-related brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease often develop slowly across an individual’s lifetime, they usually aren’t detected until symptoms have already started. With that in mind, teams of biomedical researchers led by Brown University scientists have been exploring for years whether devastating neurodegenerative diseases could be caught decades earlier — perhaps through something as simple as a routine eye exam instead of a battery of diagnostic tests. In a new study, one of the Brown-led ...

New framework for super-resolution ultrasound

New framework for super-resolution ultrasound
Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology used deep learning to develop a new framework for super-resolution ultrasound. Traditional super-resolution ultrasound techniques use microbubbles: tiny spheres of gas encased in a protein or lipid shell. Microbubbles are considered to be a contrast agent, which means they can be injected into a blood vessel to increase the clarity of an ultrasound image. Conventional ultrasound has been commonplace for over 50 years. The development of super-resolution technology in the last decade has introduced new challenges. Super-resolution ultrasound provides a much clearer picture than the traditional method. ...

Simon Fraser University becomes global instructor training facility for Siemens mechatronic systems certification program

Responding to a growing need for training in automation systems in Canada and globally, Siemens and Simon Fraser University (SFU) have announced that SFU is the first and only training facility for instructors delivering the globally recognized Level 3 Siemens Mechatronic Systems Certification program (SMSCP). Instructors, upon completion of the two-week long training will be qualified to deliver the Level 3 certification mechatronics training, vital for providing students with real-world technical skills, and helping prepare them to thrive in a high-tech world of work. Level 1 and Level 2 ...

Reconstructing brain connectivity using 3D images

Dr. Shuiwang Ji, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, is part of a collaborative research community that recently had its paper titled “BigNeuron: a resource to benchmark and predict performance of algorithms for automated tracing of neurons in light microscopy datasets” published in the April issue of the journal Nature Methods. Initiated in 2015 and led by the Allen Institute for Brain Science, BigNeuron is an international initiative that brings together computer scientists and neuroscientists from a dozen institutions. ...

Words matter: How researchers can avoid stigmatizing language

Word choice matters—a lot— when it comes to research. That’s the main takeaway from a new article co-authored by Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation Assistant Professor Angel Algarin and published in Health Communication. “Researchers in any field should be cognizant of the language they’re using to describe the people they study so they don’t inadvertently add to the use of stigmatizing language,” said Algarin. For the article, Algarin and his co-authors performed a content ...

Chip-based QKD achieves higher transmission speeds

Chip-based QKD achieves higher transmission speeds
WASHINGTON — Researchers have developed a quantum key distribution (QKD) system based on integrated photonics that can transmit secure keys at unprecedented speeds. The proof-of-principle experiments represent an important step toward real-world application of this highly secure communication method. QKD is a well-established method of providing secret keys for secure communication between distant parties. By using the quantum properties of light to generate secure random keys for encrypting and ...


Cancer survivors who quit smoking have 36% lower cardiovascular risk than continuers

More depressed patients than previously estimated could have increased activation of their immune system

Shedding light on the complex flow dynamics within the small intestine

UK cardiology societies issue joint policy statement to stamp out bullying, harassment, and discrimination in the specialty

Predominance of young Asian men among large UK case series of laughing gas users

Ketamine nasal spray may prove safe and effective treatment for refractory migraine

The clams that fell behind, and what they can tell us about evolution and extinction

Medical school does not equip new doctors for the real working world, junior doctor warns

Unique “bawdy bard” act discovered, revealing 15th-century roots of British comedy

Saved from extinction, Southern California’s Channel Island Foxes now face new threat to survival

Genetic change increased bird flu severity during U.S. spread

New Jersey Health Foundation awards grants to Kessler Foundation to advance research in brain and spinal cord stimulation methods

Extracting a clean fuel from water

NJIT researchers awarded $4.6m to unlock mysteries of solar eruptions

Extended lymph node removal does not benefit patients with clinically localized muscle-invasive bladder cancer

Study finds sex education tool improves reproductive health knowledge among adolescent girls

No-till revolution could stop Midwest topsoil loss in its tracks

Computational method uncovers the effects of mutations in the noncoding genome

Extreme precipitation in northeast to increase 52% by the end of the century

Lung infection may be less transmissible than thought

Experimental decoy protects against SARS-CoV-2 infection

Light conveyed by the signal transmitting molecule sucrose controls growth of plant roots

Mitigating climate change through restoration of coastal ecosystems

Flexible nanoelectrodes can provide fine-grained brain stimulation

Teens with irregular sleep patterns have higher risk of school problems

Genetic risk information may help people avoid alcohol addiction

Advances in technology are driving popularity of EVs

Newborns with higher hair cortisol levels take longer to fall asleep

That’s not nuts: Almond milk yogurt packs an overall greater nutritional punch than dairy-based

Using AI to create better, more potent medicines

[] LJI-led team wins top Nucleate honors for virus vaccine development proposal
San Diego scientists work with business experts to advance dengue and Zika virus vaccine strategy