Microbiology at George Washington
Featured Institutional Interview
According to an analysis published in
ScienceWatch.com in July of this year, George
Washington University had the highest percent increase
in total citations in the field of Microbiology for the
December 2007-February 2008 update period. In
Essential Science IndicatorsSM from
Reuters, GWU's citation record in this field
includes 156 papers cited a total of 5,230 times
between January 1, 1998 and April 30, 2008.
In the interview below, Dr.
Peter Hotez, Professor and Chair of GWU's Department of
Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine, talks with
correspondent Gary Taubes about the history and development of
What were you doing prior to your move to George
Washington University in 2000 to create the Department of Microbiology,
Immunology and Tropical Medicine?
I’d spent 12 years on the faculty at Yale, building up a program
there in molecular parasitology.
What was the impetus for starting the department and why
do it at GWU instead of Yale?
We’d obtained funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to
develop a hookworm vaccine. The grant actually went through an organization
called the Sabin Vaccine Institute: Sabin was prepared to give the grant to
my lab and they basically said, "Set it up wherever you think you can get
the work done best." What was clear was that as an academic scientist I now
had to learn how to do product development, but I had to do it in the
The problem with hookworm is that it’s a disease of the world’s
poorest people. Six hundred million people have hookworm and almost all of
them live on less than a dollar a day. This means any vaccine has to be
developed in the nonprofit sector. So where was I going to learn how to
make a vaccine and then do product development? It’s not easy to do
that in close collaboration with industry because industry is more or less
a closed system.
"Over the next few years I want our
department to become a go-to department for
solving problems of parasitic diseases and
HIV/AIDS in developing
There were multiple advantages to setting up a lab in Washington. One was
we’d be close to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which
has experience making military vaccines. They were fairly open to helping
us, both the current members of WRAIR and the retired personnel. A critical
person was Phillip Russell, a Major General of the Army who was on the
board of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and was in the Washington DC area. So
that was incentive number one to move to Washington. Incentive number two
was that Washington is an important center for global health policy. You
have the Pan American Health Organization, the World Bank, and the Global
Health Counsel. So there was this combination of factors that made
Washington look like the ideal place to learn how to make the vaccine and,
equally important, to learn how to develop the policy to assure that the
vaccine is used once it’s developed.
We looked at many schools in the Washington area. We thought initially of
going to Johns Hopkins, which is kind of Yale south. At George Washington,
there was essentially an empty floor of a building that we could use. I
thought that would be a great opportunity to build something new and I
liked the idea of doing so. There was a department of microbiology on the
books at GWU, but it only had a couple of faculty and they were no longer
pursuing active research programs.
To me this idea of creating a department from scratch was far more exciting
than going to an existing department, as would have been the case at
Hopkins. I wanted to realize the vision of a department devoted to tropical
and infectious diseases. There are only a very few basic science
departments of parasitology and tropical diseases. One is at New York
University; the others are at Hawaii and Tulane. I thought it was important
to have one in Washington DC.
How big was the grant from the Gates
The initial grant was $18 million, but that also included support for the
clinical development piece and supporting the clinical laboratory in
Brazil, as well as work in collaboration with other institutions of the
Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative, including the Queensland Institute of
Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia, and the London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine. We have since (2006) been re-funded.
What was your strategy for recruiting talented faculty
to a brand-new department, one without any track record?
Well, first of all, we had to identify people that could buy into the idea
of doing very applied research and development to make products. If you
went to one of my lab meetings, you probably wouldn’t find it
interesting, because a lot of what we talk about is quality control and
quality assurance and all these other things you do in industry.
Then the idea was to have the faculty members that were not making a
hookworm vaccine, which is what we’d be doing, but were interested in
immunology of parasitic and tropical diseases. We also felt that we could
not ignore the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and we emphasized that in our
We basically said, "Look, this is not a wealthy school; it’s only
modestly resourced outside the hookworm vaccine. We’re not going to
try to be everything to everyone. We’re not going to have an
adenovirologist; we’re not going to have a flu virologist; we
won’t have a bacterial pathogenesis person like so many microbiology
departments. We’ll try to be good in three areas that are
complementary: one is parasitic tropical diseases; one is immunology and
immunity to infection; the third will be HIV/AIDS."
Was it difficult to get good people to come?
It was not that hard. The only thing I couldn’t sell was having a
big, critical mass of scientists, but because the DC area itself is so
enriched in research, that in itself was a good selling point.
How large is the department?
We now have 20 faculty members, some of them research faculty only.
How did the department evolve in coincidence with your
hookworm vaccine work?
Well, one thing we had to do was get to work on the vaccine. This,
essentially, was like setting up a biotech company, but a non-profit one in
an academic setting. At the same time, we’re bringing in people with
independent NIH grants who could also build up research programs that would
be complementary to what we’re doing.
The key was focusing our attention on some very important individual
recruitments that would kind of anchor the department: people like Paul
Brindley, an eminent parasitologist who was at Tulane; Imtiaz Kahn, who
worked on toxoplasmosis immunology at LSU; John Hawdon and Bin Zhan,
molecular parasitologists who came with me from Yale; Jeff Bethony, an
immunologist from the Southwest Foundation; Michael Bukrinsky, who is an
HIV virologist; and Fatah Kashanchi, who also does HIV. We also recruited
two more junior immunologists, Stephanie Constant and David Leitenberg.
Another very important component was hiring a strong administrative staff.
So I recruited Maria Elena Bottazzi to serve as vice chair for
administration. For the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative, we recruited
Gaddam Goud, who was working in industry at the time, as well as Bin, and
Dr. Botazzi also has a leadership role in product development.
We embarked on a collaboration with the Sabin Vaccine Institute so that the
lead scientists and physicians there, such as Ami Shah Brown, David
Diemert, Mike McQuestion, and Ciro de Quadros, have faculty positions with
us as well as The Institute for Genomics Research (TIGR), emphasizing
faculty that were doing parasite genomes, including
Najib El-Sayed and Elodie Ghedin. As long as we're
in Washington DC, why not hit the ground running by partnering with
In retrospect, what was the most challenging aspect of
getting your department up and running?
There were a number of things. Getting people to roll the dice on an
unknown entity, not a big-name school, was one of them. The people we
recruited could have gone anywhere; they could have gone to Harvard,
Hopkins, you name it. So they had to buy into the vision of a department
committed to diseases in developing countries. That was very important. And
then doing the product development was also, personally,
challenging—learning how to build products. Throughout this time we
also kept close ties with the Sabin Vaccine Institute. I’ve now
become president of that Institute and they’re now located on the
edge of the GWU campus. So we’re building links there. The
doctoral-level staff at the Sabin are now also members of the GWU faculty.
How many of your 20 faculty members are also at the
Right now, there are three, including me.
How did it feel personally to go from a full-time
researcher to someone who spends a large proportion of time as an
"Six hundred million people have
hookworm and almost all of them live on less
than a dollar a day."
Fortunately I have very good administrators. I have Dr. Botazzi and a chief
financial officer at Sabin named Brian Davis. I realized about myself that
I’m not a terribly good financial manager, so I have someone who
takes care of that. What I love is talking to my faculty and seeing this
department realized as a department devoted to diseases of developing
countries. I think one of the reasons why we’ve been so successful is
because of our focus. It also helps, of course, to have university
administration that’s supportive—a dean (Jim Scott) and vice
president for health affairs (Skip Williams) who buy into the idea. We like
to joke that we’re the only department of microbiology in the country
without a microbiologist—we don’t have a classical
bacteriologist in our department.
Your department’s most-cited papers are on
bacterial genomes. How did that come about?
That’s interesting. What happened was that while I was at Yale, there
was a talented student there named Najib El-Sayed, and he then moved to
TIGR. When I moved to GWU, the deans arranged an affiliation with TIGR, and
Najib was leading the way on the work on parasite genomes, so we brought
him into our department. Then TIGR collapsed and everything was scattered.
The fallout was that we lost Najib to the University of Maryland.
How do you see your department evolving over the next
Well, I want to keep it going. If you look at the big picture, GWU is not a
science-intensive university. It’s not up there with some of the big
players, even just those with Washington in the name, like Washington
University in St. Louis or the University of Washington in Seattle. I would
at least like our department to stand out as something that could be
considered right up there with these other important departments of
microbiology. That means continuing to build on our critical mass and what
we’ve started to see developing in the last couple of years.
It’s very exciting.
The faculty are now writing grants and doing projects with each other, not
just with the collaborators they had before they came here. So, for
instance, people are working together on parasite-HIV co-infections.
That’s going to be so important in the future. There’s evidence
suggesting that when you have worms, it increases your susceptibility to
HIV/AIDS. There’s maybe a three-fold increase in transmission.
We’re looking at the mechanisms for that. We also are now the
scientific headquarters for PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, the
first open-access journal on this topic.
Over the next few years I want our department to become a go-to department
for solving problems of parasitic diseases and HIV/AIDS in developing
countries. This includes developing new vaccines for parasitic diseases and
other infections. I think co-infections are going to be huge. I think
we’re on the verge of making some very exciting new products, new
control tools, for these neglected diseases. I think were becoming
competitive with some of the more advanced science departments in molecular
Do you think you’re now competitive with Hawaii,
Tulane and NYU?
Those are wonderful departments and I think we’re there now.
We’re not quite with the Harvards and the Dukes yet.
Are you planning on adding more faculty?
We’re looking to expand in our existing areas, so we can build on
this critical mass that we have. Really nothing dramatically new, though,
just expanding where we’re already going. We want to be able to hire
another first-rate person working on parasitic worms. We really want to
capture a market share, you could say. The other thing we haven’t
done enough is to recruit really young faculty right out of their
post-docs. So we want to bring in some younger blood. Most of the people
we’ve recruited have been mid-career.
Is there a reason for that?
It’s because this is still a relatively resource-poor university,
we’ve had a reluctance to take a risk on those kind of young
So back to what got this all started: What’s the
status of your hookworm vaccine?
It’s now in clinical trials. There is a pipeline of antigens moving
through clinical trials in Brazil. It’s become a very interesting
model for how to make products in the nonprofit sector. We’re looking
at the next five years to really give us a sense of whether these vaccines
are working well in developing countries. They work well in animals. We
have to show they work well in people and that they’re safe. So we
have a series of safety trials to do.
What would you like to convey to the general public
about your institution’s work?
That I think it’s possible, even in this day and age, to build a
world-class department from scratch, with sufficient commitment and focus
and the support of the community and the administration. I am particularly
looking forward to seeing how the new University President, Steve Knapp,
unfolds his vision for building research here. And, of course, thank God
for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for making all of this
Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., Walter G. Ross Professor and Chair
Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine
George Washington University
Washington, DC, USA
The Department's current most-cited paper
in Essential Science Indicators, with 311
Read TD, et al., "The genome sequence of Bacillus
anthracis Ames and comparison to closely related bacteria,"
Nature 423 (6935): 81-86, 1 May 2003. Source:
Essential Science Indicators from
Keywords: hookworm vaccine, vaccine development,
vaccine policy, parasitic tropical diseases, immunology, immunity to
infection, HIV/AIDS, department development, research partnerships,
funding, bacterial genomes.