Faced with the threats of viruses like H1N1 influenza and SARS in recent years, scientists including the University of Maryland's Dr. Robert Gallo sought a way to prepare for future outbreaks — founding the Baltimore-based Global Virus Network in 2011.
The network aims to address challenges in virus treatment and to prepare the world for potential pandemics, doing so through research, training and advocacy, said its president, Sharon Hrynkow. Organizations like Gallo's Institute of Human Virology at the university's School of Medicine, and others around the world collaborate through the network.
But as the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa has shown, there is still much work to be done, Hrynkow said. Hrynkow discussed that research and other priorities in virology as well as research funding in a conversation with The Baltimore Sun.
What is the sense among virologists about what the key lesson will be from the Ebola outbreak?
That we need scientists in every country who are able to address novel viruses when they erupt. One of our major priorities is to help build capacity in countries or institutions not currently able to do cutting-edge medical virology. We focus a lot on training. One of the lessons for us and everyone is we need to have scientists in place who are well-trained and who are able to recognize new viruses when they emerge. We believe that a global collaboration is a key part to addressing these key challenges because viruses, as we can see, they don't stay in one place.
The other lesson for us is it's certainly not the first outbreak of a viral disease and it's not going to be the last one. There's some lessons to learn in how we address this current virus that we apply to others that come down the pike, like Chikungunya, which is spreading across the Americas. What can we in the Western Hemisphere learn from those countries that have been grappling with it for decades? Dengue and Chikungunya often look similar when patients present themselves with joint aches and fevers and such. One of the lessons is we need great diagnostics in that case so we can distinguish one disease from another disease.
With different viruses, some research focus is on vaccines while with others it's on treatments. What are the advantages and challenges of each approach?
In general, as public health goes, vaccines are the most cost-effective health tool that we have in our toolbox. Once they are deployed on a mass level, it's very inexpensive to protect people from getting infected. That's the gold standard; that's what you want, so you can stop the outbreak before it starts. If you can't prevent the disease, you need effective treatment. The prevention and treatment paradigms are always going to be looked at, and different scientists are going to gravitate toward one or the other. For example, Dr. Gallo has been pursuing an HIV vaccine for a number of years.
Much progress has been made with HIV treatment in recent decades. Obviously it's still ongoing, but what do you think is the next area of focus?
What's big in the HIV field right now is the idea of a functional cure. The scientists believe we can manage HIV such that it is essentially not an issue in an individual. We know it's a chronic disease, certainly, in this country because we can manage it, because we have access to drugs, but that's not the case in every country. The goal right now is getting toward what's being called a functional cure.
Beyond that, the other areas GVN has prioritized for 2014 are things like the need to develop a universal flu vaccine. Every year, we all get a flu shot, but if we could get one shot like we do with measles that gives a lifelong immunity, we wouldn't need to get a shot every year. That's a major priority in virology today.
What is impact of federal cutbacks on virology research, and are there other funding challenges?
That's a mixed story. In the United States, the medical research funding has basically flatlined overall. GVN is nonprofit and we're a startup, so we are just starting to apply for federal grants. We rely on philanthropy and grants from companies and now increasingly, hopefully, from the federal government to support our central operation. We have 31 centers of excellence around the world. They are all well-funded. … However, they are subject to all the economic downturns just like our counterparts in Germany or South Africa or India or China or really anywhere. Scientists everywhere are impacted when large government funding decreases. There are some cases where governments are spending more on science and technology, however. [South] Korea, Singapore, India, some countries in the Middle East, are really spending a significant amount of their GDP on science and technology. That benefits those researchers.
When do you think we might have a cure for the common cold?
If I had a crystal ball, I'd love to give you an answer, but I wouldn't even dare to do that. Adenovirus [a class of viruses that includes the cold] is being researched not only because of the respiratory issues that it brings, but also, it's being used as a tool to create vaccines and other technologies against other viruses. Adenovirus is very important in the whole armament of tools we have at our disposal.
Title: President, Global Virus Network
Previous work: Deputy director, Fogarty International Center, National Institutes of Health; associate director, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH; senior adviser, U.S. Department of State
Residence: Annandale, Va.
Education: Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Connecticut; postdoctoral research at University of Oslo
Family: Married, two teenage sons
Hobbies: Hiking, tennis, cross-country skiing