Passionate pursuits


Pedro Lamothe-Molina, PhD ’17, hopes to continue researching infectious diseases while taking care of patients and racing the occasional triathlon

May 2, 2017 – In 1996, Pedro Lamothe-Molina applied to medical school in his hometown of Mexico City. He easily met all the academic requirements. But when school officials met him for an interview in person, they decided they couldn’t accept him—because he was 12.

“I did include my birthday on the application, but I guess they didn’t notice it,” said Lamothe-Molina.

The precocious youngster did eventually get his medical degree from Facultad Mexicana de Medicina, Universidad La Salle and this month, Lamothe-Molina will receive a PhD in Biological Sciences in Public Health from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His focus at Harvard Chan has been on understanding the immune response to HIV—in particular, why some people are better than others at fending off the virus.

Head start

Home-schooled by his father and several tutors, Lamothe-Molina wanted to study medicine so he could become a doctor like his father and grandfather before him. When that didn’t pan out, Lamothe-Molina decided that engineering would be a good alternative, since he’d always loved math and its applications. Undeterred by his medical school rejection, Lamothe-Molina (still 12) applied to and was accepted at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey.

While in school (and still living at home, like most college students in Mexico), Lamothe-Molina focused on engineering projects related to biology. For one project, he designed an electronic device that could measure and record patients’ vital signs, called the “Diagnostic Optimizer for General Medical Assistance”—DOGMA for short. His invention was selected as one of the top 20 in a worldwide competition.

He went on to become the school’s youngest-ever graduate at age 17.

Unsure of his next move, he spent a year and a half working for his father, who ran clinical laboratories in Mexico. Lamothe-Molina said he gained valuable financial and management experience business during that time and enjoyed working closely with his father, but also realized that an academic career was a better fit for him than running a business.

Basic science and public health

Lamothe-Molina eventually circled back to the same medical school that had rejected him years earlier. After graduating in 2008, he studied biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University, and began thinking of ways to apply his engineering background to developing technologies that could harness the human immune system to fight infections.

He received several financial awards that enabled him to attend Harvard Chan School, including a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute research fellowship for international students and a combined scholarship from the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia in Mexico and Fundacion Mexico en Harvard.

“The Biological Sciences in Public Health program was exactly what I was looking for,” he said. “It’s a basic science program, so you work in the lab to design and perform intellectually challenging experiments. But it’s also focused on having a global health impact.”

Secrets of immunity

Working in the lab of his Harvard Chan advisor Bruce Walker, director and founder of the Ragon Institute, which focuses on HIV/AIDS and immunology research, Lamothe-Molina has helped shed light on a decades-long puzzle: the fact that some people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, don’t get sick.

“Some people progress rapidly to disease and AIDS when they’re infected by HIV, and a very small but very interesting group of people—between 1 in 100 and 1 in 300—are actually able to control the disease without treatment,” Lamothe-Molina said. “We study one of the largest cohorts in the world of these individuals, and we’re able to look at what’s unique about their immune response that enables them to control the virus better than others.”

Lamothe-Molina conducted research that contributed to the discovery of an unconventional type of CD8+ T cell—a white blood cell that’s good at fighting infections, especially viruses—in HIV-infected individuals. He helped identify a unique mechanism through which these T cells recognize HIV-infected cells, and showed that this process is linked with certain people’s ability to control the virus. And he has explored whether this beneficial mechanism—which the researchers found in only three of the HIV-infected individuals in the cohort—could somehow be transferred to CD8+ T cells in other patients with only limited ability to fight the HIV virus.

“We’ve been trying to find alternative approaches to enhance these CD8 T cells, to make them better at recognizing and therefore killing infected cells,” he said.

Lamothe-Molina has been prolific during his time at the School, publishing numerous papers with colleagues.

“Pedro’s been a terrific asset in the lab,” Walker said. “He has really been driving our studies of T cell receptors for the past four years.”

Getting ready for race day (courtesy Pedro Lamothe-Molina)

Outside of the lab, Lamothe-Molina has another passion—triathlons. He started entering the grueling races in 2006 and has now done about 20—several of them “Ironman” triathlons, in which participants swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a 26.2-mile marathon without a break. He has also run five marathons. Between triathlons and running races he estimated that he’s participated in about 60 competitions overall.

At the bedside, at the bench

After graduation, Lamothe-Molina will take up his residency training at Emory University in Atlanta. He wants to make sure he can practice medicine so that he can work one-on-one with patients.

His goal is to become a physician-scientist. “I want to combine clinical work with research without stepping away from either one of them,” Lamothe-Molina said. “I have a passion for both disciplines. What’s meaningful for me is integrating my innate scientific curiosity with the compassion I develop for patients by taking care of them on a day-to-day basis.”

Karen Feldscher

photo: Sarah Sholes