A young researcher is creating revolutionary new treatments for autoimmune diseases – and raising the next generation of biomedical engineering stars.
Decades before COVID-19, another infectious scourge ravaged the world. Guyanese-born alum Jamal Lewis (PHD ’12) was only in primary school then, but he remembers.
“In the Caribbean, particularly in the late 1980s and early ’90s, we were hit by a huge epidemic we used to call ‘the big truck,’” says Lewis. “A lot of people died from HIV/AIDS, and as a child growing up, I used to see people disappear, and I knew it was probably relevant to the immune system.”
The “disappeared” included family friends. What could he, the son of two scientists, do to stop disasters like this, he wondered?
Around 2000, while watching a “60 Minutes” episode on a tissue-engineered human ear, an engrossed young Lewis had an epiphany: “I saw that and thought, ‘I would like to be involved in the future of medicine,’” he says.
“Jamal Lewis sets the best example for how aspiring scientist engineers can commit themselves, work hard and have fun innovating new ideas and technologies.”
— Ben Keselowsky, Ph.D., professor and associate chair for graduate studies, UF biomedical engineering department —
Today, Lewis, 36, is at the vanguard of immunoengineering, designing microscopic but powerful biotechnologies that stop relentless “big trucks” in their tracks.
An associate professor in bioengineering at the University of California, Davis, Lewis is creating regulatory vaccines to prevent and/or reverse autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune autism. His innovations have earned him top accolades from the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Engineering, and this year he was named a 40 Gators Under 40 honoree.
Lewis’s UF’s mentor, Ben Keselowsky, Ph.D., says it has been fulfilling seeing Lewis take his place as a respected biomedical scientist and continue to “creatively expand his domain.”
“He sets the best example for how aspiring scientist engineers can commit themselves, work hard and have fun innovating new ideas and technologies,” says Keselowsky.
While scientific innovation may be Lewis’s passion, his greatest points of pride are personal:
“I’m most proud of graduating the first two doctoral students from my lab and becoming an ‘academic father,’” he says.
From Guyana to Gainesville
Lewis’s journey to the frontlines of biomedical research began in the South American country of Guyana, where he was born in 1984 to Leslie Lewis and Dawn Lewis, Ph.D. His father was the dean of the School of Technology at the University of Guyana, and his mother was a medicinal chemist, as well as a trained pharmacist.
In 1996, a year after the birth of Jamal’s younger brother, Shaquille, the Lewis family moved to Jamaica, where his father served as an agricultural engineer on sugar estates and his mother taught pharmacy at the University of Technology. Wherever they lived, Jamal enjoyed playing sports, especially cricket and badminton (he became so accomplished in the former that he considered going pro).
The family liked to gather together every Sunday to watch “60 Minutes.” Two particular episodes riveted Lewis as a young teen.
The first was a late ’90s episode on Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first cloned adult mammal. The other episode showcased how American bioengineer Anthony Atala, M.D., had grown a full-sized human ear under the skin of a live rat, using biological tubing implanted with human stem cells. The tissue-engineered ear could be used to heal wounded soldiers or repair congenital ear deformities.
“When I saw that I thought, ‘Wow, that is really cool, that is the future,’” remembers Lewis, who vowed to follow in Atala’s footsteps by studying biomedical engineering in the U.S. His family wholeheartedly supported him.
Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from FAMU in 2004 and three years later obtained a master’s in biomedical engineering (BME) from North Carolina State University. He says the University of Florida was “top of the list” for doctoral studies in BME not only for the academics, but for personal reasons.
“By that time, my parents had moved to Tallahassee, and UF offered proximity to them,” he says. “Plus, I already had a cousin, Kinda Seaton [PHD ’13], at the University of Florida, so I was very familiar with all the UF traditions and customs.”
One final detail clinched the deal for the sports-minded scholar: The Florida Gators had just won their second NCAA national basketball championship.
“That was certainly a draw,” he says.
Fighting the “Big Truck”
All set to specialize in tissue-engineering, Lewis had a life-changing moment at his UF orientation. As faculty from the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering presented on their research, Lewis was struck by professor Ben Keselowsky’s work on using microscopic biomaterials to treat diabetes, a disease that happens to run in Lewis’s family.
“He made the pitch of doing not just doing diabetes, but doing type 1 diabetes, which is more of an immunological challenge than a diet or lifestyle problem,” explains Lewis. (While both are chronic diseases involving problems with insulin, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that can be passed on genetically; type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is often brought on by being overweight and inactive.)
His familial connection to diabetes, coupled with childhood memories of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, convinced Lewis he could make an even bigger impact by researching the immune system.
After getting the OK to do his first rotation in the Keselowsky Lab, Lewis dived into his new field. In the years since he had left Jamaica, science had developed powerful tools to run “the truck” and other immune-disabling diseases off the road – with tiny, nanoscopic materials that reengineer how cells respond to threats like cancer, viruses and bacteria.
Only 23, Lewis struck his new mentor as being well suited to taking on the challenges of immunoengineering.
“Jamal started out in my lab as a serious, focused young man determined to work hard and go far,” remembers Keselowsky, now the department’s associate chair for graduate studies in biomedical engineering.
For his dissertation, Lewis worked on formulating microparticles in combinations that could be used to combat autoimmunity, a condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells. He first had to screen hundreds of dishes containing cells derived from the bone marrow of mice, pick the top candidate and then move on to animal studies.
“It was a mountain of work,” says Keselowsky. “But Jamal was disciplined, organized and creative, and he tackled it bit by bit.”
That persistence paid off. By 2012, Lewis had developed his first version of a microparticle vaccine that prevents the development of late-stage type 1 diabetes and even reverses the disease in 40% of treated mice.
Eager to help humanity, Lewis pushed to have the lab’s research “translated” into clinical application, with support from the UF Innovation Hub.
“I knew little of biotechnology translation, but I was adamant that we had discovered a remedy for the millions of children and adults that struggle to cope with type 1 diabetes every day,” he says.
The Keselowsky Lab patented the vaccine through UF and licensed it to Alachua-based OneVax, a start-up headed by members of the UF Diabetes Institute and the Department of Biomedical Engineering. In 2013, Lewis became a senior scientist at OneVax and helped the fledgling company get off the ground.
Lewis wrote the company’s first Small Business Innovation Research application “and successfully brought in their first funding and first employee (after him),” says Keselowsky, OneVax’s co-founder. “He laid the foundation for OneVax to try and commercialize our microparticle technology.”
Currently, OneVax is thriving and is soon to merge into InspiraTherapeutics, a company that develops state-of-the-art therapies to treat autoimmune diseases. Their first product, Inspira-01, protects the insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas by stopping the autoimmune process in type 1 diabetes.
“Freedom to Create”
Lewis’s fascination with scientific discovery lured him back to academia in 2015, when, at age 30, he joined the faculty at UC Davis’s biomedical engineering department. There, as the director of the Immunomodulatory Biomaterials Lab, he develops biomaterial systems to manipulate the immune system and studies existing mechanisms that cells use to protect themselves.
“Exhilarating” is the word Lewis uses to describe the discipline of immunoengineering, especially in the age of COVID-19 when novel mRNA vaccines designed by his peers are saving millions of lives around the world.
“The thing I love about my current career is the freedom to create,” says Lewis. “I can dream up an idea or concept one night, then the next day step into the lab to pursue it.”
Among the areas his lab is investigating: shellfish allergies (from which Lewis personally suffers) and vomocytosis, a naturally occurring process that enables white blood cells to recognize and expel dangerous pathogens hidden inside them. By unlocking the secrets of vomocytosis, he hopes to develop a universal vaccine against infectious agents.
And he is still perfecting his type 1 diabetes vaccine.
A raft of prestigious awards has followed his migration to the West Coast, including nearly $2 million in NIH funding for vomocytosis research, a 2020 Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering Young Innovator Award and a Biomaterial Science RSC Emerging Investigator award in 2021.
Lewis is also busy lifting up the next generation of scientists. He actively promotes diversity in BME at UC Davis, inviting minority students, who are underrepresented in STEM fields, to participate in research during the summer term and in the gap year after undergraduate studies.
But it was in July 2020, when he graduated his first two doctoral students, that the young researcher truly felt he had reached a milestone in his career. Becoming an “academic father” is deeply meaningful to him, he says, enabling him to transcend his own insecurities as well.
“As a young Black male in the academy, the level of ‘impostor syndrome’ you feel at the start of your career is unfathomable,” he says. “There is much uncertainty and self-doubt about your ability to excel in your new role, especially when you are tasked with shepherding the next generation of biomedical engineering scholars.”
“Now that I have transported that first cohort to a new stage in their lives, there is a sense of relief,” he admits. “I am joyful and incredibly proud to see them applying the lessons they learned from me and contributing positively to society.”
Nine Questions with Jamal Lewis, Ph.D
If a movie were made about you, what would the title be, and who would play you?
“Nomad in the Pursuit of Science,” starring Omar Epps.
Three books that have impacted your life?
The novel “Homegoing” (2016), by Yaa Gyasi; “Outliers: The Story of Success” (2008), by Malcolm Gladwell; and “Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast” (2020), by Marjoleine Kars.
If you could thank one teacher, who would that be?
That would be my chemistry teacher in high school, Mr. Dave Lewis. Chemistry came pretty easy to me at that stage, and I didn’t take it seriously. At one parent/teacher’s meeting, he prophetically told my mom that although I was naturally gifted, I would get a C grade in an impending A-level exam if I just relied on my talent. His words have always stuck with me and remind me to prepare for upcoming tasks or suffer the consequences.
What has most surprised you about life?
The difficulty of coping with the loss of loved ones.
If you were given a million dollars to better the world, how would you spend it?
I would use that money to develop financial literacy classes/modules that target low-income communities in the U.S. and other parts of the globe.
What activities are on your bucket list?
Solo flight of an airplane.
What was one of your favorite classes at UF?
When I first started in the department of biomedical engineering, I took a class in team-based learning that was instructed by Brandi Ormerod and Ros Sadlier. The focus was to come up with clever solutions to various problems in engineering. I’ve never forgotten it.
The one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to enter your field?
I would tell them it’s a long, winding and often circular road. Be curious, always, and be patient.
What advice would you give to all UF students?
Take the picture but live in the moment!