Robert Saxton: Learning the language of the immune system

Illustration -- Saxton Lab Illustration courtesy of Saxton Lab.

By Sarah C.P. Williams

A decade ago, Dr. Robert Saxton was a Berkeley undergraduate torn between a pre-med path and a newfound love of basic research. Inspired by his experience studying cell division with Michael Rapé and working as an organic chemistry teaching assistant, he chose the academic path. Now, the College is pleased to welcome Saxton back to Berkeley as an assistant professor with a joint appointment in Molecular and Cell Biology and the College of Chemistry. His new lab, which launched in January 2023, will study the immune system’s molecular signals that spur inflammation and tissue repair.

“What I want to do is use protein engineering to study and manipulate the molecules that the immune system uses to communicate within itself as well as with the other tissues in the body,” says Saxton. “This has consequences for understanding and treating cancer as well and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”

Saxton returns to Berkeley after graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and, most recently, a post-doctoral fellowship in the lab of Chris Garcia at Stanford University. 

A Path To Translational Research

Bobby Saxton photographed in Stanley Hall.
Photo Brittnay Hosea-Small.

Saxton grew up in southern California, always interested in science and drawn to a career in medicine. He joined Rape’s lab at Berkeley, initially, to boost his basic science skills and pad his medical school resume. But he quickly grew to love the comradery and the sense of discovery that came from working in a lab. As Rapé gave Saxton increasing independence in the lab— eventually handing him his own research project— Saxton’s plans gradually shifted from medical school to graduate school. In 2012, he won a Berkeley Rose Hills Foundation Fellowship to spend the summer pursuing his research, which revolved around a large protein that controls cell division.

At MIT, Saxton was co-mentored by Thomas Schwartz and David Sabatini, studying how cells sense nutrients. The labs used a convergence of structural biology, biochemistry, and cell biology to understand the mTOR pathway, which cells use to control their metabolism and growth in response to external signals. 

“It’s really important for cells to be able to react to the availability of metabolites and nutrients in their surroundings,” says Saxton. “It turns out the mTOR is not only involved in cancer, but also in the way in which caloric restriction can extend the lifespan.”

Saxton became particularly interested in one aspect of this pathway: how cells sense amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. At the time he launched his graduate research project, it was known that the mTOR pathway could be dialed up or down by the presence of amino acids, but not which protein or proteins were directly binding to the amino acids to detect them. Over the next few years, Saxton pieced together the details of how the proteins Sestrin and CASTOR bound to the amino acids leucine and arginine, respectively, fulfilling this role. His research was published in the journals Science and Nature in 2016. 

Today, pre-clinical and clinical studies are probing how targeting mTOR pathways could help treat cancer, metabolic disease, and depression. It has validated Saxton’s drive to pursue this line of research. 

“I’ve always been particularly interested in translational problems, and particularly to projects where there’s a therapeutic end game,” says Saxton. 

Co-opting Cytokine Communication

Saxton’s research also is working to understand cell communication: either how cells talk to each other or how cells interact with their environment. For his post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford, he wanted to stick to this theme, but explore the field of immunology. Saxton began probing immune signaling molecules called cytokines in the lab of Chris Garcia.

“Cytokines are basically the language of the immune system,” Saxton explains. “And the
immune system is obviously extremely important for nearly all aspects of human health.”

Cytokines have as many diverse functions as the immune system itself—triggering and quelling inflammation and spurring tissue regeneration after injury or infection, to name a few. Existing therapies block particular cytokines to shut off inflammation, but few drugs have successfully mimicked the more beneficial effects of the proteins. 

With Garcia, Saxton and his colleagues, worked to understand the structural and chemical details of two cytokines, IL-10 and IL-22, in the hopes of creating new versions of the molecules that could be beneficial as treatments for autoimmune disease and chronic inflammation. 

“We were trying to use this natural mechanism that your body already has for turning off inflammation, but without shutting off your whole immune system and increasing your risk of infection,” he says. “We think cytokines can be engineered to turn off inflammation in a more subtle and targeted way.”

In a 2021 paper in the journal Science, Saxton and Garcia reported that they could successfully design variants of IL-10 with more selective anti-inflammatory properties. 

Back at Berkeley

When searching for a place to launch his lab, Saxton put Berkeley at the top of his list. A long-distance runner, he loves the weather and lifestyle of Northern California, and knew from experience how at-home he would feel on the Berkeley faculty. 

“The scientific environment here is very collaborative, collegial, and supportive,” says Saxton. “I really think that’s truer here than lots of other places. The opportunity to work with some of the best students in the country was also a big draw.”

In his newly launched lab, Saxton plans to continue looking at how to re-engineer cytokines and other signaling proteins for clinical benefit. In addition to questions about how the molecules turn down inflammation, he also wants to understand how cytokines promote repair and regeneration during an infection or in the context of inflammation. 

In cancers, these tissue regeneration pathways are often turned up— they can be part of what drives the growth of tumors. In autoimmune disease, however, the same pathways can be turned down. 

“If we have a deeper understanding of how to control these cytokines, we can push them in two different directions, to turn on or off these cellular programs,” he adds.