Michael Birnbaum, Ph.D.


Michael Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Biological Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Ave., 76-353D
City, State, ZIP
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 715-2355
[email protected]
Research field
Cancer Immunology
Award year
Pew distinction
Innovation Fund investigator


The Birnbaum laboratory is dedicated to better understanding and manipulating immune recognition in the contexts of cancer and infection. Immense molecular diversity in the T-, B-, and NK-cell receptor repertoires, which the immune system uses to distinguish between normal cells and infected or cancerous cells, has made it challenging to understand exactly what is recognized during the course of an immune response.

Drawing from a wide range of scientific disciplines—including protein engineering, protein biochemistry, cellular immunology, sequencing, and bioinformatics—the Birnbaum group works to elucidate the process of immune response by 1) identifying and sequencing immune receptors of interest, 2) decoding what the immune response is “seeing” in response to cancer or infection, 3) answering questions about how the immune response composition and dynamics affect the success or failure of an immune response, and 4) developing ways to rewire the signaling and recognition of immune responses. 

As an Innovation Fund investigator, Michael Birnbaum, Ph.D., is teaming up with Dan Littman, M.D., Ph.D., to study the pathology of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), an autoimmune disorder whose cause is largely unknown. Our intestines host hundreds of species of bacteria that provide mutual benefit to the host by instructing immune system development. However, in individuals with IBD, bacteria that should be harmless, or even helpful, cause an inflammatory T cell response. This collaboration will combine Littman’s research in how specific bacteria drive inflammation by affecting T cell differentiation with Birnbaum’s expertise in T cell receptor-antigen binding to characterize which microbes and antigens drive harmful responses in the gut. The findings from this work have the potential to uncover novel therapies for IBD by targeting either microbes or T cells.  

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