Meet Our Researchers

Samantha Riesenfeld

Postdoctoral Associate at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Samantha Riesenfeld is interested in using advanced statistical methods from data science to understand food allergy.

Project Description

Food allergies endanger more than 220 million people worldwide, two-thirds of whom are children. Yet we still barely understand the biology behind these potentially life-threatening reactions to food. We do know that it is related to the interplay between the immune system and epithelial tissue. BroadIgnite funding will help Sam use statistical machine learning approaches to test an unconventional but potentially revolutionary hypothesis: that our nervous system mediates the immune system’s response.

Watch Sam pitch her BroadIgnite project

The Question

Most scientists believe allergies arise from a complex set of interactions between the epithelial tissue—which lines the lungs, skin, and gut and serves as our first line of defense—and our immune system. But recent evidence from several studies has compelled me to explore another possibility: what if the nervous system also plays a critical role—perhaps even mediating the immune system’s response?

The Approach

As a first step, I want to better understand which parts of the nervous system respond to allergens, and how they work with immune and epithelial cells during food allergy. I’ll approach this by working with experimentalists to apply single-cell RNA sequencing to neurons of mice undergoing allergic response. I’ll then adapt and apply statistical machine learning methods to infer from our data which neurons respond to allergens and how their gene expression changes. Transcriptional changes may in turn give us clues about what other cells are involved. This project will leverage the Regev lab’s unique expertise in single-cell sequencing of the enteric nervous system and the gut, as well as my own training as a mathematician and computer scientist. I’m excited to discover what new insights this approach will yield about the mechanisms of allergy, including what kind of neurons are involved and how their behavior changes during allergic response.