Thanks to the support of the Commonwealth Research Initiative, three virologists have been hired at Virginia Tech as part of the cluster hires supporting the host-pathogen-environment interaction (HPEI) research focus and a suite of modern equipment will be purchased for advanced separation and imaging of living cells.

Dr. Paul Christopher (Chris) Roberts, associate professor of virology, and Drs. Lijuan Yuan and Elankumaran Subbiah, assistant professors of virology, have joined an interdisciplinary program focused on emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. They are on the faculty in the Virginia – Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology on the Blacksburg campus and will work with the Center for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Disease and some 35 microbiology faculty members across campus, plus the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and the Fralin Biotechnology Center.

"The Commonwealth Research Initiatives' one-time funds were very instrumental in enabling us to hire these leading scientists, making possible the start-up resources needed to assure that they have the necessary research equipment and supplies to continue and enhance the good work they are doing. It would be very beneficial if these CRI funds continued into the future," said Virginia Tech President Charles Steger.

A new 77,000 square foot integrative life sciences facility being constructed at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center by the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Natural Resources, Science, and Veterinary Medicine will include the Advanced Separation and Imaging of Living Cells Facility, with equipment made possible by the Commonwealth Research Initiative.

“The facility will permit researchers to observe and manipulate changes that occur during host-pathogen interactions, such as in the infection process,” said IBPHS Director Dennis Dean. “The facility will augment Virginia Tech’s virology research and complement our well-established expertise in bacteriological research and our emerging strength in vector-borne disease research.”

Roberts, originally from Salisbury, N.C., received his bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in North Carolina and his master’s degree and his Ph.D. from Philipps-Universitat in Marburg/Lahn, Germany. He worked as a research associate in the Department of Microbiology/Immunology at Emory University, Atlanta, before joining the School of Medicine at Wayne State University in 1999. His research has been consistently supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a principal investigator (PI), and by the American Institute of Cancer Research and National Cancer Institute as a co-PI.

Roberts' research includes the structure of influenza (filamentous influenza) and its role in the spread of the virus, flu vaccine development, including avian flu, and host pathogen interactions, particularly as they relate to viral and bacterial exacerbation of infectious disease. Cancer research in his laboratory has been directed at using dietary strategies and oncolytic virotherapy (viruses that kill cancer cells) combined with immunotherapy to prevent and treat ovarian cancer. He and his collaborators have developed a syngeneic mouse model to study ovarian cancer. He has received two Wayne State University School of Medicine teaching awards and regularly serves on the NIH Infectious Diseases and Microbiology -10 Special Emphasis Study Section "Bugs and Drugs". He is a member of the American Society of Virology, American Society of Microbiology, and the American Association for Cancer Research.

Lijuan Yuan, who is from Beijing, China, earned diplomas from Beijing Health School and Beijing University, a master’s degree from the Capital Institute of Pediatrics at the Peking Union Medical College and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, and a Ph.D. from the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at The Ohio State University. She was a postdoctoral fellow in immunology and molecular virology with the epidemiology section of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She returned to Ohio State in 2002 as an adjunct assistant professor and research scientist in the Food Animal Health Research Program.

Yuan is an expert on rotaviruses, which are a common cause of acute dehydrating diarrhea in infants and young children and other young animals worldwide. She received the first class award of Beijing Scientific and Technologic Invention from the Municipal Committee of Science and Technology, Beijing, for her molecular epidemiology study of genotypes of rotaviruses circulating in China in 1994. Her Ph.D. dissertation on studies of rotavirus immunity using a neonatal gnotobiotic pig model of human rotavirus disease received the William E. Krauss Director's Award in 2001 from The Ohio State University. She has continued her research of the virus, treatments, preventions, and vaccine development, and has published extensively. She has been an invited speaker on the topic worldwide, most recently at the World Health Organization in March 2006 in Geneva. Her research is supported by the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Elankumaran Subbiah has been with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary (VMRCVM) Medicine since 1999, based at the University of Maryland campus in College Park. He received his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. from the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Madras Veterinary College, India, and worked there as an assistant professor for 10 years before joining the VMRCVM. He was certified as a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists in 2003 and named as a research assistant professor in 2004.

Subbiah’s research has been directed towards understanding the pathogenesis of negative strand RNA viruses and development of novel vaccines for them. At the College Park campus, his research focused on development of a vaccine for avian flu in chickens, control and prevention of avian flu in the United States, improving the vaccine for Newcastle disease, a highly contagious bird disease, and rapid diagnostic techniques for this and other viruses. He is the co-inventor of a skin delivery (non-invasive) immunization method for chickens, and the first inventor of a genetically engineered Newcastle disease virus that will kill human and animal cancer cells. He is also studying the use of the Newcastle virus and other paramyxoviruses as a vaccine vector for human pathogens. His research at Virginia Tech is directed towards developing recombinant Newcastle disease virus as a cancer therapeutic, and understanding the role of swine in the interspecies transmission of influenza A viruses. He has been awarded funding from the Department of Defense, Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, to develop recombinant Newcastle disease virus as an oncolytic agent against prostate cancer in humans. He is a co-investigator in the U.S.-India Agricultural Knowledge initiative from the U. S. Department of Agriculture for capacity development in animal health and biotechnology in India.

Health, food, and nutrition – also a National Institutes of Health focus – is one of the four discovery areas of Virginia Tech’s strategic plan. Building on the university’s research strength, the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences (IBPHS) at Virginia Tech is partnering with the colleges to carry out cluster hires. One of the first such hires supports the HPEI research focus.

The Advanced Separation and Imaging of Living Cells Facility will provide modern tools of the trade for investigation of infectious disease processes, which will include a cell sorter, often used to separate diseased cells from healthy cells; a live scan confocal microscope, which permits the researcher to observe and track changes in living cells or tissues; a laser capture micro-dissection system, which can isolate very small sections of tissue for detailed examination; and a luminex system, that can tag molecules so they can be visualized, sorted, isolated, or tracked – even within cells and as they enter and exit.

In 2004, the Commonwealth of Virginia asked members of the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate a proposal to expand an evolving collaborative program for HPEI research at Virginia Tech. Following their recommendations, Virginia Tech has developed and implemented the multidisciplinary approaches that are essential for anticipating conditions under which new infectious diseases will emerge and old ones will re-emerge. Academy members rated the proposal as having a very high potential for developing nationally and internationally recognized research programs, building upon the demonstrated success of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI).

In spring 2006, an unprecedented research initiative received bi-partisan support from the Virginia General Assembly. The research initiative provides over $200 million to state universities for the 2006-08 biennium, including funds for specific research projects. For Virginia Tech, $15 million was appropriated to directly enhance the university’s research programs in science and engineering with a special focus on nanotechnology and host-pathogen-environment-interactions. An additional $11 million was appropriated for research equipment, and funds are also provided to support graduate students and new research buildings.

The new faculty members will share space and equipment; develop multidisciplinary graduate programs; and establish partnerships with the VBI, industry, medical institutions, and other academic institutions that will assist IBPHS to achieve its goals.

The mission of the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences is to enhance the quality and quantity of research in biomedical and public health sciences at Virginia Tech and develop innovative cross-disciplinary research efforts in areas that foster the development of new knowledge fields for the 21st Century.


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