Dr. Maria Tokuyama, the newest faculty member in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UBC, officially opened the research doors of Tokuyama lab in March 2021. With a core research focus on viral immunology, the lab’s ultimate goal is to identify novel endogenous viral factors that influence immunity and underlie differences in disease outcomes. The lab hopes to contribute towards development of immune modulators to treat infections and chronic inflammatory diseases.
“I was always motivated by discovering something new about viruses and their interactions with the immune system,” shares Dr. Tokuyama, whose excitement for scientific research actually began with a book.
The path to discovering a new virus
“What opened my eyes was reading a non-fiction book called Level 4 Virus Hunters of the CDC during my senior year of high school,” she shares. The book describes the journey of scientists to various parts of Africa and how they found the causative agents of outbreaks. For Tokuyama, this was the first time she had read about the behind-the-scenes stories that connected the dots between the problem and the solution.
“It was not about one scientist who read a lot of books and did secret experiments in the basement to come up with a Nobel prize-winning theory. It was about a group of research scientists working together to solve a tangible health problem. I could vividly see the path to discovering a new virus and feel the excitement of everyone involved.”
So, despite her parent’s wishes for her return to Japan, she pursued her B.S. degree in the United States and immediately looked for a virus lab to volunteer in as soon as she started undergrad. She continued to chase her passion for virus-host interactions and worked in an Ebola virus vaccine lab at the National Institutes of Health after undergrad, worked on herpesviruses and natural killer cells as a PhD student at University of California, Berkeley, and started her research on endogenous retroviruses in immunity as a postdoc at Yale University.
Throughout her career, she has also enjoyed mentoring many undergrad, post-grad, and rotation students. Tokuyama says the back and forth of teaching, learning, testing, and interpreting data is fun and fulfilling.
Just like the scientists in the “virus hunters” book, it’s exciting to discover something new when collaborating with others. So, she knew she wanted to be in a research setting that involved teaching and mentoring students. What she wasn’t sure about was whether she could “make it” as a successful scientist.
“Can I become a professor? Will anyone hire me?” she pondered. “I learned that if I wanted to become a PI and a prof, I needed to make a commitment and pursue this path, and not wait until someone else thought I was good enough to become one.”
Acknowledging that commitment alone is not sufficient, though a necessary component, Tokuyama shares that her amazing mentors, including her postdoc mentor Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, her Women in Science at Yale (WISAY) mentor Dr. Megan King, her PhD advisor Dr. Laurent Coscoy, and many others helped her define a tailored path to get to where she is today.
The support network consisting of peers and faculty mentors was essential, especially since growing up she didn’t know any real-life scientists, and the concept of a research scientist did not exist in her knowledge-base for much of her youth. Now, she has a rich research history, a present as an Assistant Professor at UBC, and a future filled with new discoveries and collaboration. As a PI, Tokuyama wants to support trainees in defining paths to achieve their career goals, just as others have done for her.
The Tokuyama Lab
In the Tokuyama Lab, trainees will participate in research on the human virome: a collection of exogenous viruses that reside in most individuals and endogenous viruses that are present in all individuals. These viruses rarely cause overt disease in healthy people, but persistent interactions between these viruses and the immune system can affect how one responds to infection or inflammation.
Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) are the most abundant member of the human viral metagenome. We know from many studies, including those led by UBC faculty, that ERVs are epigenetically and transcriptionally regulated during development and are important regulators of gene expression. We also know they are differentially expressed during a range of disease conditions including cancer, autoimmune disease, and viral infection.
“However, a big gap in our knowledge is how ERVs affect our immune system and their functional roles in disease,” says Tokuyama. “This is the gap that my research program hopes to fill.”
Tokuyama’s previous work involved developing a computational pipeline to analyze the human ERV transcriptome and investigating the immunomodulatory role of ERVs in the context of autoimmune lupus disease using clinical samples and viral infection in the female genital tract using mouse models.
“Building on this, my lab will rely on next generation sequencing, proteomics, and computational approaches to uncover novel functions of ERVs in immune cells. We plan to use mouse models, 3D cell culture systems, and clinical samples to define the molecular interactions between ERV proteins and signaling pathways that affect immune cell functions in order to determine how these interactions impact outcomes of viral infections and autoimmune diseases.”
Tokuyama’s research will shed light on novel virus-immune interactions, and more broadly, has the potential to expand our understanding of heterogeneity in disease outcomes. Ultimately, the research findings could be used as a basis for development of tailored therapeutic and prevention strategies. Currently, the lab has multiple projects aimed at uncovering the role of ERVs in antiviral immunity and autoimmunity.
“LSI is an exciting research hub, and I’m really looking forward to working with people from different research areas to come up with creative and collaborative research programs to improve our understanding of virus-immune interactions.”