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November 16, 2021
Damon Runyon Fellow Tyler Starr, PhD, named 2021 STAT Wunderkind

We are delighted to announce that Damon Runyon-HHMI Fellow Tyler Starr, PhD, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has been named a 2021 STAT Wunderkind. This award, granted annually to “the best early-career researchers in health and medicine in North America,” recognizes Tyler’s exceptional promise in the study of viruses and our immune systems.

When Tyler started his postdoc in the lab of Dr. Jesse Bloom in 2018, he planned to focus on how mutations in HIV antibodies affect their ability to bind to antigens. But when reports of a novel coronavirus began to appear in late 2019, he realized he could adapt his methods to investigate other, newly urgent questions. Tyler set out to characterize how mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 receptor binding domain (RBD) affect its affinity for the ACE2 receptor on human cells.

His research relies on a technique called yeast surface display, in which proteins of interest are isolated and pinned to yeast cell walls. His findings—published in leading journals such as Nature, Cell, and Science, and featured on the NIH Director’s blog—have proven critical to viral surveillance efforts. They led, for example, to the identification of the alpha (UK) and beta (South African) variants of SARS-CoV-2, which have increased affinity for ACE2. 

Tyler is now using his yeast display system to identify and optimize antibodies that can be used against SARS-CoV-2 and other sarbecoviruses. In July, his team described an antibody known as S2H97 that targets an epitope (the region of an antigen to which an antibody binds) found in many SARS-related coronaviruses. This molecule, lauded as a super antibody, was shown to effectively inoculate hamsters against SARS-CoV-2 infection. It may eventually be used in a pan-sarbecovirus vaccine for humans. “We don’t know where SARS-3 will come from,” says Tyler, referring to possible future epidemics. “If we can make antibodies or vaccines that can protect against the diversity of these SARS-related coronaviruses, that could be a long-term solution.”

In the course of addressing our current global health crisis, Tyler has pioneered innovative research methods that will have broad applications in disease prevention and treatment. His insights into how our bodies react to threats, whether from a virus or a tumor, will help researchers design better antibody-based therapies for diseases ranging from HIV to cancer. The STAT Wunderkind recognition, well-deserved, marks the beginning of an extraordinary career.

Read more2021 STAT Wunderkinds