The human immune system is highly evolved to protect us from illness, yet it still falls prey to a wide variety of infectious diseases, among them the leading causes of death and disability around the world. On the frontlines against that army of pathogens is Elina Zuniga, who focuses her research on the strategies used by viruses to establish chronic infections. Her objective is to mobilize the immune system to eradicate them, by uncovering the strategies they use to establish chronic infections. She and her colleagues study the cellular and molecular aspects of the innate and adaptive immune responses (the two arms of the immune system), and more specifically, dendritic cells, a specialized subset of leukocytes that coordinate them.
In this effort, Zuniga made a major “hit” while a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Research Institute, when she initiated study into plasmacytoid dendritic cells, a subset of leukocytes that produce large quantities of the antiviral mediators type I interferons, and have significant developmental potential. Her innovative approaches in this field continue to reveal exciting new insights into how to fight chronic viral infections and associated opportunistic pathogens. Zuniga believes that “this knowledge can be harnessed to empower the immune system’s fight against persistent viruses, thereby improving the duration and quality of life for millions of people worldwide.”
A native of Argentina, Zuniga earned her PhD in biochemistry from the National University of Cordoba. She accepted a postdoctoral position at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, made possible by the award of two fellowships. Currently an assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, Zuniga remains strongly connected to her roots, which she says often help her “perceive reality in different ways” and encourage her to “seek worldwide benefits in scientific endeavors.”
Awards and Accomplishments
- Hellman Foundation Scholar Award
- Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Scholar Award
- American Cancer Society Scholar Award (a lifetime honor)