dr. M (Maria) Forlenza PhD

dr. M (Maria) Forlenza PhD

Associate Professor

Maria Forlenza

Associate Professor (UHD1)
E-mail: maria.forlenza@wur.nl


Comparative Immunology Unit

I have always had an interest in the evolution of the vertebrate’s immune system and in particular in the immune system of fish. The idea that fish were the first vertebrates to have ‘invented’ an immune system, almost as complex as the one we now know for mammals, has always fascinated me. Having realised that mammals often represent the exception, rather than the rule when it comes to common solutions to fight pathogens, made me specialize in ‘Comparative Immunology’.

The research in my group is a balanced mixture of fundamental and applied science. On the one hand, we take a comparative approach to study various aspects of the immune system of different vertebrate species, and on the other hand, we focus on the immune response of avian (chicken), mammalian (pigs) and fish (cyprinids) species to pathogens. We then apply this fundamental knowledge to the development of experimental vaccines.

Maria was portrayed in the book Inspiring women at WUR

Research interests:

1. Evolution of the vertebrate’s immune system

I am convinced that there is no applied science without fundamental science! We need to keep on addressing fundamental questions on the vertebrate’s immune system before we can apply this knowledge for future vaccine development. For example, do fish or chickens have prototypical Th1, Th2, Th17, Treg responses? How does the heterothermic nature of fish influence the efficacy and magnitude of their (memory) immune response? Is the biological activity of immune mediators (cytokines, chemokines, etc) conserved throughout evolution? Does gene duplication imply functional redundancy or specialization? Etc…

2. host-pathogen interaction and vaccine development

In chicken, we study anti-viral immunity against infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) infection, a major burden in the poultry industry. In particular, we focus on the chicken type-I IFN response and immune evasion strategies by IBV. More recently, incollaboration with the Shanghai Veterinary Institute, we started a collaboration to understand the innate immune mechanisms triggered by ASFV in pigs with a focus on the triggers which lead to apoptosis of immune cells.

In cyprinid fish, we mainly focus on immune responses to viral and parasitic infections. In particular, we study the immune response of carp and/or zebrafish to spring viraemia of carp virus (SVCV), koi herpes virus (KHV) and trypanosome infections.

Furthermore, we recently established a ‘sleeping sickness’ (trypanosomiasis) infection model in zebrafish and we are able to follow in real-time, in vivo, the kinetics of host-pathogen interaction; such model is unique and will help unravel mechanisms that have never been visualised, not even in mammals. https://elifesciences.org/articles/48388

With respect to vaccine development, we focus on nucleic acid-based (DNA/RNA) vaccines and recombinant viral vectors. Recombinant live attenuated viruses may be cumbersome to produce but often give excellent protection. DNA vaccines represent third generation vaccines and have proven very effective in fish. We recently reported on the first DNA vaccine against SVCV, which confers full protection to juvenile carp when administered by injection. Finding alternative route of vaccine administration, e.g. orally or by bath, is very important because the injection of individual fish is not always stress-free, nor cost-effective. Ultimately we aim to develop a vaccinationplatform suitable for (warm-water) fish.

Short CV:

2002: Biology, with specialization in Molecular Immunology. University of Tuscia, Viterbo Italy. MSc degree with honour.

2009: PhD, cum laude. Cell biology and Immunology Group, Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands.

2010 short post-doc at Leiden University

2011 Personal (Veni) grant from the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO)

2011 Assistant Professor at Wageningen University and Research.

2018 Personal (Aspasia) grant from the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO)

2018 Associate Professor at Wageningen University and Research.

2019 Guest Researcher at Wageninegn Bioveterinary Research Institute (WBVR) Lelystad

Maria is currently one of the Tenure Track Mentors https://intranet.wur.nl/Project/MentorsTenureTrack

Maria was also a member of the Wageningen Young Academy