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Elena Tonc

Visiting Assistant Professor
Immunology, Chronic Pain, Cancer Biology


Elena is an immunologist studying the balance of activation and regulation of immune responses. Her doctoral research discovered safeguarding mechanisms protecting lymphocytes from cancerous transformation during proliferation. She also studied T cell responses against cancers and infections and has now circled back to studying inflammation and pain. Inflammatory, acute pain is initially protective as it signals the detection of potentially harmful stimuli. However, in states of disorder, when pain is not resolved, it can become maladaptive, chronic pain. Our research aims to understand how alterations in the immune responses may contribute to the development of chronic pain within the context of vulvar pain-vulvodynia. Vulvodynia affects ~10% of cisgender women-identifying individuals and greatly diminishes quality of life. Despite its widespread impact, it is often misdiagnosed and overlooked, with few effective treatment strategies available, highlighting the need for a deeper understanding of its origins. Current understanding implicates low-grade levels of inflammation in the pathophysiology suggesting an altered inflammatory response is involved. We established an allergy-based model of vulvodynia that mirrors key clinical findings and are using this model to uncover molecular mechanisms behind allergic-inflammation driven chronic pain. Students interested in learning more about immunology or potentially joining the lab are encouraged to email Elena. In her free time, Elena enjoys barre workouts, crafting, cuddling with her cat, and making Croatian food and desserts for friends.

Courses: Immunology, Cell Biology, Genetics, Seminar in Cancer Biology, Research in Immunology

BA: Macalester College

PhD: Washington University in St. Louis