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Meet some of the people featured in the June 2011 issue of The Scientist.

June 1, 2011

University College London Professor Emeritus Robin Weiss (left) has studied retroviruses for most of his career and made many important contributions to HIV research, including the identification of CD4 as the HIV T-cell-surface receptor. He notes, however, that he may be better known for discovering that retroviral genes are inherited like Mendelian traits. “That was the bigger discovery in the sense of shifting paradigms,” he said. Weiss is no stranger to activism, organizing the 2000 Durban Declaration with vaccine advocate Peter Hale. They gathered signatures from 5,000 scientists and doctors affirming that HIV was the cause of AIDS, in order to combat AIDS denialism, particularly that of Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa. Hale switched from a career in advertising to focus on HIV/AIDS advocacy when he first learned about the discovery of the virus. Read their introduction to this issue’s special section on vaccines.

Many immunologists are only interested in studying immune-system malfunctions, but that’s not how infectious disease expert Brad Spellberg of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine looks at it. “I am more interested in the struggle, the battle between white blood cells and infection,” he said. He has recently worked on a vaccine that targets the antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. In his article, Spellberg describes the development of vaccines that protect against can cause life-threatening fungal infections. Spellberg is the author of an award-winning book, Rising Plague: The Global Threat from Deadly Bacteria and Our Dwindling Arsenal to Fight Them, published in 2009 by Prometheus Books.

If you had told Gene Shearer (left) at the beginning of his career that he would be one of the most-cited AIDS researchers, he would have laughed in your face. “I have never had a formal immunology course in my life,” he said. Shearer was studying cytotoxic T cells in mice at the National Institutes of Health when AIDS epidemic began and thought, “Wow, this AIDS thing looks a lot like what we’ve been doing.” So he switched fields and eventually discovered that immune dysregulation plays a critical role in HIV pathogenesis. In 2003, as chief of the Cell Mediated Immunity and Disease Section of the National Cancer Institute’s Experimental Immunology Branch, he took on a postdoc from Milan, Adriano Boasso. “He is what I call one of my scientific grandchildren, as his PhD professor was a postdoc of mine,” said Shearer, and the two have coauthored an article about a new take on an old AIDS vaccine. Boasso now runs his own lab in the department of medicine at Imperial College London. Says Boasso, “He’s more than my mentor, more than my colleague—he’s a very good friend.”

Thomas Kosten learned early that the lab bench isn’t for everyone. While in medical school at Cornell, he did some research in the Rockefeller University lab of the late endocrinologist Vincent Dole, who told him that he was “good at breaking test tubes and getting bitten by rats and might be better for clinical research,” Kosten said. Now at Baylor College of Medicine, he has spent almost 40 years working in the vaccine field. He currently has a cocaine vaccine in clinical trials, and you can read the story of its development here. Kosten gets his own personal high another way: through competitive figure skating, which is how he met his wife and partner-in-research, psychologist/ psychopharmacologist Therese Kosten, who also works at Baylor.

Rino Rappuoli maintains that “science is probably the best hobby that I have,” and he has an impressive track record to prove it. After attending graduate school in his hometown of Siena, Italy, Rappuoli went on to lead work in the development of vaccines for pertussis and meningococcus, and to pioneer reverse vaccinology—the use of genomic sequence information to engineer vaccines. He is based in Siena and heads vaccines research at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics. His article about the development of “universal” vaccines appears here.

As a master’s student at SUNY Albany, Michael Gusmano was surrounded by health policy gurus whose mentoring set him on his current path. “Health policy was both an interesting case study in how the political system functions and also substantively important in and of itself,” he said of his early interest in the field. For the past decade, he’s been involved in the World Cities Project which looks at major cities across the world to learn about how they are responding to an aging population. When he’s not driving his two teenagers to track meets, he works as a research scholar at The Hasting Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research center in Garrison, New York. In this issue’s Critic at Large column he explains why vaccines and health care cannot be mutually exclusive.

“Outside interests, what outside interests?” asks Jim Woodgett. But his excitement is palpable when he describes his life inside the lab and explains how the signaling enzyme GSK-3 (glycogen synthase kinase 3) has been the “common denominator” of his scientific career. Woodgett began studying the enzyme as a doctoral student at the University of Dundee. Recent studies of GSK-3, performed in his lab at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto, directly inform Woodgett’s Thought Experiment article in which he wonders whether DNA damage arising from the deprogramming of induced pluri­potent stems cells can be controlled, and posits that expanding already existing progenitor cells could be the path that leads to faster advances in regenerative medicine.

 

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences