Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Quick Profiles of Key Women in Virology

In review yesterday, Dr. Bob mentioned that only two women had ever won the Nobel Prize for virus-related research. I looked up this fact, and he's right: Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, one of four scientists recognized for the discovery of HIV, and Gertrude Elion, who discovered acyclovir(!) and laid the groundwork for the discovery of AZT, are the only two women to ever receive the Nobel for contributions to virology. (Actually, only 12 women have ever even received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine!).

With that in mind, I thought I'd do some quick profiles of some important female virologists, past and present:

Susan Lindquist: Dr. Susan Lindquist is a currently a professor of biology at MIT and a researcher at (and former director of!) the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, where she studies abnormal protein folding in the context of prions and diseases of abnormal polymerization. Dr. Lindquist and her team have developed new models of protein-based inheritance in yeast. Her lab also explores the contribution of heat shock proteins (HSPs) and their contributions as "chaperonins" to protein folding. Dr. Lindquist is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was formerly a chaired professor at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, and received a PhD from Harvard.

Gertrude Elion: As mentioned above, Gertrude Elion was the 1988 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which she received for her instrumental role in the development of acyclovir to fight viral herpes. Interestingly, Elion never completed her PhD, but had a prolific research career nevertheless. Over the years, she conducted research at Duke University, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Association for Cancer Research, delving deep into biochemistry in order to develop compounds to fight various diseases, viral and otherwise. Her two most important contributions were the development of acyclovir and AZT to fight HIV. She passed away in 1999, a decorated member of the scientific community.

Alice Huang: Dr. Alice S. Huang is a former professor at Harvard Medical School and dean at NYU (currently affiliated with CalTech) who has made significant contributions to various aspects of the field of virology and is a vocal advocate for the involvement of women in science research. As a graduate student, she successfully isolated defective interfering viral particles (DIs). She also elucidated a new replication mechanism in mononegavirales by discovering the first virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase in the course of her thorough characterization of Vesicular Stomatitis Virus (VSV). All this is all the more impressive given that Dr. Huang was born in China, and that English was not her first language. Unfortunately, Dr. Huang is often referenced as the spouse of Dr. David Baltimore, who is himself a celebrated virologist, but her contributions have been so significant that I think she should also be recognized apart from Dr. Baltimore's legacy.

--Shubha Raghvendra


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