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Graduate Student Lara Labarta-Bajo Awarded Prestigious Melvin Cohn Award

Highly competitive award honors exceptional research

July 13, 2020

By Mario Aguilera

Lara Labarta-Bajo

Continuing to highlight achievements of the recently completed academic year, the Division of Biological Sciences recognizes graduate student Lara Labarta-Bajo, who was honored at the fall La Jolla Immunology Conference as the winner of the Melvin Cohn Award.

The prestigious Melvin Cohn Award was established to recognize scientific innovation and impact of early career scientists who have performed exceptional research. The highly competitive award carries a $1,000 prize and the opportunity to deliver a special presentation on the final day of the conference.

Conference co-chair Li-Fan Lu, associate professor in the Section of Molecular Biology, said the award selection committee judged nearly 150 abstracts from around the Southern California region, Stanford, Yale and other institutions in the United States. An organizing committee and an external review panel both unanimously selected Labarta-Bajo for the award.

Labarta-Bajo’s winning abstract, “CD8-T-cell-induced anorexia explains chemical adaptations and blooming of an immunosuppressive commensal after chronic viral infection,” describes research on the body’s metabolic and microbiome adaptations in response to a chronic infection and proposes new ideas of a previously unrecognized CD8-T-cell regulatory loop tied to changes in eating behavior.

“It has been a pleasure to mentor Lara during her doctoral thesis. She is intelligent, passionate, and driven, and I greatly enjoyed every one of our numerous scientific discussions,” said Biological Sciences Professor Elina Zúñiga. “I have been blessed with amazing mentees over the past years and Lara is a terrific addition to that group. I am delighted to see that her research work is honored with such a prestigious award.”

A native of Barcelona, Spain, Labarta-Bajo completed undergraduate studies at the University of Barcelona. As part of her bachelor’s degree, she moved to Germany for nine months to conduct experimental research on the biology of Plasmodium falciparum and other malaria-causing parasites. She attended the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and the La Jolla Institute for Immunology for her master’s degree, during which she studied the mechanisms driving the development of CD8-T cell responses after an infection.

Labarta-Bajo joined Zúñiga’s laboratory as a graduate student in 2014. Her research includes the bidirectional cross-talk between the immune system and sickness behaviors, microbiome composition and host metabolic state during persistent viral infections. A second project has led to the identification of the IFN-I-CD8 T cell axis as a novel driver of intestinal epithelial barrier leakage during chronic viral infections, which constitutes an important contribution to the field, given its potential as a therapeutic target for many inflammatory diseases and chronic viral infections.

Melvin Cohn was a founding member of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences, a professor of biology in residence at UC San Diego for more than 30 years and a pioneer in the fields of immunology and gene regulation. He passed away in 2018 at the age of 96.