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Alumni Impact

Alumni Impact
  
Charles Spencer, Ph.D. (Ph.D. ’08)    

Tell Us about your current role.

Following the receipt of a Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in May 2008, I obtained a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine under the mentorship of Dr. Sebastian Joyce. Here, we were studying the persistence and success of the smallpox vaccine using human donors who had been previously vaccinated against smallpox. The goal of this research was to understand why the smallpox vaccine was so successful in order to apply those principles to the development of new vaccines. Subsequently, I obtained a faculty position at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) under the leadership of Dr. Diana Natalicio, (another SLU grad) where my laboratory seeks to understand the immune response to bacterial infections and develop immunotherapies and vaccines to prevent bacterial disease. I was awarded tenure last year and now hold the position of Associate Professor with Tenure. In addition, I have become the Associate Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Science.

What is your best memory of Saint Louis University School of Medicine?

The best thing about SLU was the people. The faculty, staff and students in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology were amazing. You can get a Ph.D. at many places but it takes special people to not only make the rigorous work enjoyable, but to also understand why you’re doing it.  

How has the SLU mission informed your work?

The mission of SLU really became ingrained in my ethics as I sought to work to better the health of humanity through understanding how the immune system protects us from harm, and develop new therapies and vaccines to cure disease. I was fortunate to find a faculty position at another major research university, UTEP, with a similar mission. UTEP’s mission of access and excellence to those less fortunate but just as worthy in our region mirrors that of SLU’s mission to serve humanity, even the least of these. In all things, I have sought to pursue truth in service to humanity.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a doctoral student?

Don’t worry and follow where you’re led. I’ve had a lot of unexpected deviations in my career that were in no way planned. But, with God’s help, it worked anyway.

From your perspective, what challenges are on the horizon for the future of infectious disease? How are you prepared to meet those challenges?

One of the courses that I have developed and teach focuses on the interaction between infectious diseases and their human hosts; herein, we talk about these challenges. While diseases of the person, e.g., cancer, diabetes, etc., are in the range of being cured, infectious diseases will continue to baffle and confound researchers and doctors. With the continued growth of the human population and expansion of our range of influence, the future of infectious diseases is a looming cloud of uncertainty. As humans venture into parts of the globe previously uninhabited or unexplored, we risk coming into contact with previously unknown infectious diseases. Diseases that circulate and have become adapted to their animal host are now thrown into contact with humans. The expansion of their host range is typically met with very severe outcomes for the new host, in this case us, e.g., HIV, Ebola, SARS, etc. The number of new infectious diseases continues to rise and the challenge is finding a way to deal with all of them. We are positioned at the cusp of these diseases. While we are not out in the field identifying new infections and combating the disease that they cause, our research on zoonotic diseases, those coming from animal reservoirs, places us center stage to deal with these diseases. In addition, the presence and utility of our high containment laboratory allow us to safely work with microbes that cause more severe diseases.

John Pottage, M.D. (M.D. ’78)

Tell us about your current role.

I am the Chief Scientific and Medical Officer and one of the founders of ViiV Healthcare, a company that is focused on the discovery, development and commercialization of medicines for the treatment of HIV Disease. The company is a joint venture between GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Shionogi. I am accountable for the scientific and clinical strategy for developing new medicines for the treatment of HIV. Much of the work now relates to the development of long-acting injectable medicines and treatments for the long-term remission and cure. I also oversee the safety, pharmacovigilance, regulatory, and medical affairs activities of the company.

What is your best memory of Saint Louis University School of Medicine?

My best memories relate to the third-year rotations at St. Louis City Hospital in Internal Medicine and OB/GYN. This was a ‘typical’ municipal hospital where, although the services were quite limited, I really learned how to take care of patients and see how all members of the healthcare team work together. This experience taught me what a great privilege it is to take care of patients and be part of their lives during both tough and good times.

How has the SLU mission informed your work?

Doing what’s best for the patient has always informed my career both in academic medicine and in the Biotech/Pharma industry. There were so many great clinicians who taught at SLU and all taught it is the patient who is at the center of our work. Doing well for patients is the core mission.

What has been the most surprising thing about your career journey?

The most surprising aspect of my career journey is that most of my career has been related to HIV, a disease that was not described when I was in medical school. HIV/AIDS was first described in June, 1981, 2 weeks before I started my ID Fellowship. I spent 20 years in academic medicine taking care of patients and then the last 20 years in industry. Amazingly, I have helped lead an IPO for a small biotech company and over the last 10 years I have helped to found and grow a company producing important new medicines for the treatment of HIV. To top this off, last April I rang the Opening Bell at the NYSE to celebrate the company’s 10th year. I would never have imagined that back in medical school.

From your perspective, what challenges are on the horizon for the future of infectious disease? How are you prepared to meet those challenges?

The greatest challenges in infectious disease are twofold: 1) The emergence of resistance of microorganisms outpacing the availability of new anti-infectives. There is a misperception that most infectious diseases have been solved and have great therapies. 2) The emergence of new diseases or reemergence of old infections that have caught us by surprise. In my career in Infectious Diseases, a short (and incomplete) list includes toxic shock syndrome caused by Staph, HIV, multi-drug resistant bacterial infections, Ebola and Zika virus. The only way to prepare for these challenges is to maintain constant vigilance and continue providing resources for public education, and research and development of new treatments. Complacency is the greatest enemy we have.

What is the best book you’ve read in the last year?

“The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This is an extremely well-written book about the history of molecular biology starting with the work of Gregor Mendel. With the future and rapid advances of medical therapeutics centering on cell and gene therapy, Mukherjee provides a basis for understanding these exciting new therapies as well as the potential pitfalls of where we are headed.

Martin Lagging, Ph.D (Residency ’95)

Tell us about your current role.

I am a professor in Virology at the University of Gothenburg in Gothenburg, Sweden.

What is your best memory of Saint Louis University School of Medicine? 

All the wonderful, generous, and considerate friends, colleagues, mentors, and patients in St. Louis.

How has the SLU mission informed your work?

The SLU mission to pursue truth is a major part of my daily work and how I wish to live.

What has been the most surprising thing about your career journey?

To have been given the opportunity to be a fellow in Infectious Diseases at SLU. That changed everything for me and my family, and opened our eyes to a new world.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a medical student?

I would not change anything. I have always believed that it is important to enjoy life and to be happy. By so doing, it is easier to help others who find themselves in difficult and challenging situations.

From your perspective, what challenges are on the horizon for the future of infectious disease? How are you prepared to meet those challenges?

I believe there are two major challenges for the future of infectious disease: 1) To establish new financial incentives so that the pharmaceutical industry once again develops new antibiotics as resistance is becoming an increasing challenge globally. 2) To continue to develop new anti-viral therapies and vaccines to combat new as well as old threats, e.g. Ebola, Dengue, West Nile, Tick-borne encephalitis, RSV, etc. Even viral infections for which efficacious vaccines are currently available, e.g. measles, are reemerging, highlighting the need for anti-viral medications in addition to vaccines.

What is the best book you’ve read in the last year?

“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara.

Nicole Sullivan, Ph.D (Ph.D. ’12)

Tell us about your current role.

I am a senior scientist in Infectious Diseases and Vaccines at Merck in West Point, Pa. I’m a B cell and T cell immunologist who studies immune responses to different viruses and viral vaccines, and correlates of vaccine durability. Being at Merck has shown me that what we do at the laboratory bench can have a meaningful impact in helping human health worldwide. Working with the people at Merck, whether it be the scientists I interact with daily all the way to the CEO of our company, has inspired me to be more thoughtful and innovative.

What is your best memory of Saint Louis University School of Medicine?

My fondest memory was getting to interact with my PhD mentor, Dr. Daniel Hoft. He taught me how to be a good scientist but more importantly, how you can treat people kindly and with respect. Additionally, working with all the wonderful people in the departments of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and Internal Medicine—Division of Infectious Diseases, Allergy and Immunology. Everyone was always willing to talk about my research, whether it be troubleshooting an experiment or understanding the big picture. I very much enjoyed my time as a graduate student at SLU.

How has the SLU mission informed your work?

Part of the mission at SLU is to seek excellence in service to the community. Working on infectious diseases and new vaccines to potentially help society, whether it be locally or internationally, has always been important to me.

What has been the most surprising thing about your career journey?

I have been interested in infectious diseases since I was in high school. I had planned to go to medical school, but once I started doing laboratory research, I knew that is where I belong. I love being in the lab asking questions and trying to figure out the answers to both small and large questions/problems.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself as a graduate student?

To learn to think more outside the box. As a graduate student learning immunology, it can be easy to just repeat what has been done before but in a slightly different way. Stepping outside the box and being innovative can be more challenging, but it is ultimately where many of the scientific breakthroughs come from.

From your perspective, what challenges are on the horizon for the future of infectious disease? How are you prepared to meet those challenges?

One challenge in developing new vaccines for infectious diseases is understanding the mechanisms/correlates of immune-mediated protection. For example, shingles is caused by reactivation of varicella zoster virus as one ages. The number of VZV-specific T cells decreases with age and is associated with an increase in shingles incidence. Thus, the primary correlate of protection is the number of VZV-specific T cells. However, not all infectious disease agents have a clear mechanism of protection. Another herpes virus, herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), is a major health burden worldwide, yet we still don’t quite understand what results in protection. Thus, understanding mechanisms of protection against infectious diseases is important for rational vaccine design and is something I currently work on for several pathogens.

What is the best book you’ve read in the last year?

“Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases” by Paul Offit. During Maurice Hilleman’s 30 years at Merck, he developed eight vaccines: measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae! One could argue Dr. Hilleman has helped to save more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century. As I am in the same department that Dr. Hilleman used to chair, it is a great inspiration and legacy to aspire to. Dr. Hilleman would have been 100 this year!

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