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How do parasites evade detection by the immune system? Why does a mutation in a mouse gene lead to the development of an autoimmune disease similar to human lupus? What kind of tag-team signals have to fire in sync for the body’s immune responses to be unleashed?
These are some of the questions that Pfizer scientist Janet Buhlmann has spent her life studying. Now a Senior Principal Scientist in Immunology and Autoimmunity with Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation in Boston, Janet’s professional goal is to understand the intricacies of the immune system in order to help develop better therapies and vaccines to treat disease.
“I’m an immunologist by training and in recent years great strides have been made in understanding how the immune system works. The more we understand the underlying causes of disease, the better we can tailor medicines and identify patients who have the best chance of being helped by a certain type of therapy.”
As a child, Janet was a sports fanatic that genuinely enjoyed school and learning. She played on sports leagues and ran amuck in the local neighborhood woods. She kept track of statistics for the basketball, softball and track teams. Janet realized early on that she had a knack for solving puzzles – she enjoyed figuring out how things went together to form the big picture – but it wasn’t until high school that Janet realized a passion for science.
“My high school biology teacher made a DNA ladder model that could twist into coiled and supercoiled forms. He put up a single strand and asked for a volunteer to create the complementary strand. I couldn’t volunteer fast enough to solve that puzzle, he had me completely hooked.”
Janet went on to receive a B.A and Ph.D. in Biochemistry followed by Postdoctoral Fellowships at Brigham & Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. It was a chance encounter in college that ultimately led her into the world of immunology.
“I always knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. but the summer prior to my senior year, I was so focused on my thesis that I forgot to apply to graduate schools. I missed most application deadlines and was trying to figure out my next move when I saw an ad on the wall outside my lab for a position in infectious disease research. I got the job and was introduced to the world of immunology – it changed my life.”
The immune system is made up of many types of molecules and cells that are distributed throughout the body, which act in a coordinated manner to prevent or eliminate microbial infections, to suppress the growth of tumors, and to initiate the repair of damaged tissues. Disease can occur when the immune system is unable to function properly – when certain molecules don’t “fire” at the right time or do not respond in the correct manner.
Despite a deep love of research and academia, Janet felt something was missing in her academic career – she felt the need to connect her work in the lab more directly to patients.
“After twelve years in academics, I realized that I wanted to help transform the work done at the lab bench into something that would help people. I transitioned to the pharmaceutical industry and joined Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation so I could help translate scientific discoveries into novel therapeutics that have the potential to directly help patients.”
Autoimmune disorders – which can range from rheumatoid arthritis to multiple sclerosis – often do not restrict themselves to one part of the body and, to-date, there is no explanation for what exactly causes these diseases. Janet has personally struggled with several friends and family who are living with autoimmune disease, some of who are unable to get an accurate diagnosis despite multiple tests and persistent symptoms. She continues to search for answers to the hard questions in hopes of better understanding and leveraging the body’s own means of fighting these diseases.
“To this day there is still no greater thrill than analyzing an experiment, seeing the data and realizing that the experiment supports the hypothesis. But the ability to help develop something that will improve the quality of life for someone suffering is really why I come to work every day. You don’t have to know exactly what it is that you want to do. Search for what inspires or endlessly fascinates you and don’t be afraid or deterred by bumps in the road, they can take you places you never imagined.”