Why study that, Jim Crowe?

If you want to be inspired, read our new post from Dr. Jim Crowe, Professor of Pediatrics and Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology and the Director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center. He describes his journey between medicine and basic science and the truly transformative impact of research.

-by Jim Crowe, M.D.

I trained as a physician, and my original plan was work in Sub-Saharan Africa as a pediatrician. This direction grew out of my interest in diverse cultures, my sense of justice and wanting to make a difference in the world for good, my personal desire for deep meaning in my work, and elements of my personal faith. I found working in global health settings interesting and challenging, but also frustrating, because at maximum, it is only possible as a provider to see about 60-80 patients a day. Many of the most vexing problems I encountered were infectious diseases, and there was little we could do for infected patients other than symptomatic care. I began to dream “What if . . .” scenarios. What if we had a treatment that kept people from dying for this and that, or what if we could convert severe disease to mild disease with some sort of treatment, and then eventually, what if we could prevent these diseases from ever happening at all? That impulse led me away from training to work on the ground in Africa, and instead into research on vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases.

Over time, my interests have become more and more basic in nature. I believe that if we can define the fundamental principles underlying how the human immune system responds to infection, then we will be able to harness the immune system for preventing infections much better. Vaccines and treatments have been developed empirically for the most part for many decades. We’re trying to use a different approach, to learn the rules of how humans respond to infections, and use that deep knowledge to safely and powerfully manipulate the immune system to protect and to maintain health. We have launched the Human Immunome Project, the largest genetic project in history, to define all of the human B and T cell receptor sequences on the planet (similar to what was done with conventional genes in the Human Genome Project). We also have set out to isolate human monoclonal antibodies to most of the viral infections that cause disease in humans (we are working on nearly 100 viruses). One of the fun things about our approach is that since we are doing our fundamental discovery work with human antibodies, we can use the antibodies that come out of the program as biological drugs. So, in the end, we are having our cake and eating it too – we are learning the fundamental rules of how the immune system works and making biologics that can be given to people to prevent or treat infections. A handful of our antibodies are in development for clinical trials now, and we did our first treatment of a human this year, which was exciting for us.

One of the things I have enjoyed the most in this career is building and being a part of teams made up of diverse individuals to pursue these dreams. People from all over the world and from many academic disciplines have joined together in our group to pull in one direction to discover biology, and to make new solutions for infectious diseases. There is a Swahili expression I learned while working in East Africa – Harambe, roughly meaning working together, pulling together, helping each other, caring, and sharing. That has always been an organizing principle for us.

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