J. Christopher Love: The Nanoimmunologist
Growing up, J. Christopher Love never imagined that he’d be exploring the intricacies of the immune system as a career. In high school, he developed theoretical designs for molecules that could act as electrical devices at the MITRE Corporation, a government-sponsored defense technology company in Fairfax County, Va. Love says the project helped him “realize that molecules are really critical for understanding how you make structures.” His MITRE supervisor, James Ellenbogen, sent Love’s manuscript to Harvard chemist George Whitesides for comment. Whitesides liked what he saw. “That was a prelude of things to come,” Love says. The study was published in Proceedings of the IEEE —Love’s first in a long list of publications—and he ultimately joined Whitesides’s lab 5 years later for his PhD.
“By age 18, Chris [Love] knew more about the literature of nanotechnology than anybody in the world,” says Ellenbogen. “I’ve never worked with anyone who can study a subject and grasp the depths of it so quickly.”
Love’s graduate work focused on unconventional processes for cheaply fabricating nanostructures. He crafted techniques using little more than glass slides and beads to build hollow pyramids, magnetic nanorods, and bowl-shaped particles—some of the first asymmetric nanoparticles ever built. Love then studied the properties that emerged when he combined thousands of the particles together. Aggregates of the minute bowls, which “looked like tiny cereal bowls or eggshells,” according to Love, yielded a super-hydrophobic material, 1 and the nanorods self-assembled into tight bundles. 2
“[Love] turned out all kinds of interesting stuff with enormous independence and enthusiasm,” says Whitesides. “He has a natural certainty, an assurance about what he’s doing, and the confidence in his own ability to pick good problems and solve them.”
After graduating, Love sought to apply his small-structure toolkit to practical problems, and immunology struck him as the perfect place to start. So in 2004, he joined Hidde Ploegh’s lab at the Harvard Medical School as a postdoc. The lone physical chemist in a world of biologists, Love “was an oddball in the lab,” he says. But his interdisciplinary approach paid off. Love built a high-throughput microarray chip with nanoliter-scale wells to screen monoclonal antibodies produced by single cells. 3 “[Love] was very adept at learning the ins and outs of immunology,” says Craig Story, a molecular immunologist at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., who spent a sabbatical working with Love. “He was so quick at picking this stuff up.”
Love has “a certain willingness to take risks and cross boundaries,” says Ploegh, now at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Whitehead Institute. “He’s very adept at picking problems in areas where there’s little prior art.”
Love started his own lab at MIT in 2007, where he is developing nanotech approaches to profiling the inner workings of the immune system. Last year, Love used his microarray technology to characterize the specificity and binding affinity of antibodies secreted by individual primary B cells. A similar approach should help “define fingerprints” of immune responses to different vaccinations, he says.
The research “is about how to measure and characterize individual cellular responses,” Love says. “It’s process engineering, just at the other end of the scale.”
Title: Assistant Professor in Chemical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1. J. C. Love et al., “Fabrication and netting properties of metallic half-shells with submicron diameters.” Nano Lett , 2:891–94, 2002. (Cited in 118 papers)
2. J. C. Love et al., “Three-dimensional self-assembly of metallic rods with submicron diameters using magnetic interactions.” J Am Chem Soc , 125:12696–97, 2003. (Cited in 79 papers)
3. J. C. Love et al., “A microengraving method for rapid selection of single cells producing antigen-specific antibodies.” Nat Biotech , 24:703-07, 2006. (Cited in 25 papers)