... conversations with people at the Leading Edge.

Viral Defense  


Connie Schmaljohn

    ... is a virologist. She is Chief of the Department of Molecular Virology at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infections Diseases (USMRIID), in Reston, VA. Dr. Schmaljohn and her colleagues work to optimize the wellness of military personnel in combat and peacekeeping pursuits around the world, while treating illnesses indigenous to foreign countries. She specializes in DNA vaccines for hantaviruses, filoviruses and tick-borne flaviviruses.


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Picture a vaccine that protects everyone from everything. Not likely. But DNA vaccines for RNA viruses -- what Dr. Connie Schmaljohn's group works on -- may well get us further toward that goal. In addition to promising to be effective against disease, so far the DNA vaccination has not shown any deleterious effects on our own genes.

      Dr. Connie Schmaljohn is Chief of the Department of Molecular Virology at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where she and her colleagues are inspired by the prospect that vaccines they develop for military use have vast potential for helping all of humanity.

      The type of work and the goals of USAMRIID haven't changed much over the decades, according to Dr. Schmaljohn, but the way they do the work and the tools they use have changed dramatically. The scientists have a growing bag of tricks, including the hope of multivalent vaccines -- vaccines that protect a person from several things at once -- which are cost-effective, with the least pain and downtime for soldiers (USAMRIID's primary concern), a vaccine mechanism that will be easy and cheap. And, eventually, available to all of us.

      Directed "applied" research is very much the focus of USAMRIID. They're looking for specific answers to particular questions. DNA vaccines are being developed for Dr. Schmaljohn's specialties -- Hanta viruses, Ebola viruses and tick-borne encephalitis. But the underlying need for continuing basic research (out of favor with many sources of funding in recent decades) reveals itself in stories of medical researchers figuring out how to address a disease in one part of the world because they had studied disease processes in entirely different environments -- epidemiological studies which allow them to look at where these new things are coming from, as well as studying the absolute basic characteristics of the viruses.

      Reminding us that the United States has no biological warfare program, Dr. Schmaljohn affirms that we do have a biological warfare defense program. And yes, she's aware that there can be a fine line between the two. The military's infrastructure permits some health care delivery that civilians (with underfunded public health systems) may well envy. Individual states are now thinking about widespread biological threats to health and are beginning to develop their own organizations to consider what to do in the face of biological warfare. Back to DNA vaccines.

      Dr. Schmaljohn has a personal concern that not enough young women are being encouraged to get into science, not enough mature women are succeeding in its top echelons. Like much of the research agenda itself, it's another long-term problem with no easy fix in sight.

      Dr. Schmaljohn predicts dramatic advances in vaccines. She also acknowledges there's a lot we don't know. She and her colleagues at USAMRIID confront viruses -- known and unknown -- intent on keeping U.S. military personnel healthy, all over the world. At the same time, the human population swells and all of us interact, everywhere. Winners to be announced ... .

   [This Program was recorded January 28, 2000, in Taos, New Mexico, U.S.]




Edited Excerpts of the Conversation:



Conversation 1


Dr. Connie Schmaljohn tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. the difference between contagious and infectious diseases. She describes how molecular biology looks at viruses' building blocks, not the diseases they cause. She explains the international thrust of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), distinguishing it from domestic agencies.



Conversation 2


Everyone now goes everywhere, Dr. Schmaljohn observes, noting we are not seeing new viruses so much as viruses with which we had not before come in contact. She reminds us diseases account for most wartime casualties, noting the growing importance of the military during peacetime with military peacekeeping operations. She describes how USAMRIID sets priorities. She distinguishes directed research from basic research and explains why basic research continues to be vital, using Hanta virus as her example. She suggests how much we do not know about viruses.




Conversation 3


Dr. Schmaljohn describes Hanta viruses, with examples from around the world. She describes the secondary effects of a massive disease outbreak. She explains how Hanta viruses are transmitted -- almost always by inhaling aerosols from rodent urine, feces, saliva, and possibly from flea bites -- reminding us that rodents and rodent infestations can happen everywhere, including lovely summer cottages. She puzzles over when viruses cause disease and when not. She gives a further description of hemorrhagic fevers with renal syndrome. She explains how she and her colleagues are approaching the development of DNA vaccines for RNA viruses.



Conversation 4

The discovery of a particular protein which can make RNA into DNA was a key discovery in molecular biology, says Dr. Schmaljohn, because it allowed scientists to manipulate genes. She continues her explanation of how DNA vaccines are made. She describes gene guns. She lists the viruses for which DNA vaccines are being developed. She describes the military's traditional approach to deploying vaccines. She explains multivalent vaccines and how USAMRIID is looking for cheap and easy vaccines. She tells us why she thinks DNA vaccines are the wave of the future, predicting big advancements. She reassures us about the safety of such vaccines. She considers the military's mission within general concerns for public health. She distinguishes biological warfare programs -- which the U.S. military does not have -- from our a biological warfare defense program, with examples.



Conversation 5

Dr. Schmaljohn describes the coordination between people working with infection diseases in the civilian and military sectors. She explains the importance of the military's infrastructure for quick dispersal of vaccines, comparing it to civilian situations. She includes regulatory issues as she describes the timeline for both older and newer methods of making vaccines. She discusses the impact of the exploding human population. She describes the concerted effort she and others are making to attract young women to science, detailing what she believes needs to be done. Dr. Schmaljohn voices concern that there has not been much improvement in doing so. She describes the particular strengths she believes women bring to science.


Conversation 6

Dr. Schmaljohn recalls what motivated her to work with viruses that cause human diseases. She finds inspiration in the enthusiasm of her colleagues and in their progress. She shares her pleasure in knowing that as all of them work to protect military people, they are also helping the rest of humanity.



Related Links:

Dr. Schmaljohn suggests people interested in virology and related subjects might enjoy a visit to the American Society for Microbiology's site. ASM describes itself this way:

The American Society for Microbiology is the oldest and largest single life science membership organization in the world. Membership has grown from 59 scientists in 1899 to over 42,000 members today located throughout the world. ASM represents 25 disciplines of microbiological specialization plus a division for microbiology educators.


Dr. C.J. Peters, Chief of Special Pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) in Atlanta, GA, introduced us to Dr. Schmaljohn and other renowned virologists while, simultaneously, meeting all his obligations as co-organizer (with Dr. Michael Buckmeier) of a virology conference in Taos, New Mexico. Dr. Peters' enthusiasm for virology and his seemingly endless willingness to help the rest of us get a glimpse of what's at stake is a source of ongoing inspiration. It's always a pleasure to work with Dr. Peters and we thank him.

The people at the Taos Civic Plaza & Convention Center were courteous and helpful at every turn. We are grateful to them all, especially Reuben J. Martinez, Facilities Superintendent, and Debbie Adamson, Sales & Marketing Manager.

The town of Taos, New Mexico was also welcoming. We thank all of those who helped us.


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