Touro professor's research recognized by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Patricia Kutza
Vallejo Community Issues Examiner 
examiner.com; May 20, 2012

If tobacco was a celebrity, it would be desperately seeking an image makeover.  Other plants are glamorized as 'botanicals' and their ingredients command high prices under tony labels.  But tobacco usually garners bad press - the negative media attention triggered when someone has his day in court with a cigarette producer.

Turning a New Leaf

Under all that radar are scientists exploring the beneficial aspects of tobacco.  One of them is Dr. Alison McCormick, a  Mare Island-based Touro University Associate Professor in Biological and Pharmaceutical sciences.  She is the recent recipient of a Grand Challenges Explorations grant, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Recognized for her 'creative, unorthodox thinking' McCormick will pursue an innovative global health and development research project, titled “Plant-Produced Synthetic RNA Vaccines,” which will use tobacco plants to produce much needed vaccines.

Exclusive interview

Dr. McCormick recently found time from her ultra-busy schedule (She also teaches  basic Pharmacology to 1st and 2nd year Pharmacy students) to give us an exclusive interview.  In the first of our two-part posting, she shares how she will need to structure her research:

"This is a $100K pilot grant, called Phase I, which  supports a year-long grant project.  The Gates Grant foundation expects two things to come out of the project: small scale production of a novel RNA virus in plants, and vaccine responses in mice.

The first six months of the grant are pilot testing and scale up of vaccine production, and  second six months are for vaccine testing. The success of the project is measured in making the vaccine and its effectiveness in mice.  What I will be doing that is new is shifting from synthetic vaccine production to using a plant system to make the vaccine. The components that go into the vaccine are similar, but we are using a living system to assemble the parts. That should make this kind of vaccine easier to produce, possibly have more uniform characteristics (ie., more effective) and eventually easier to scale up."

I am working with a scientist at Touro (Jyothi Mallajosyula) who was recently brought in to work on the grant.  I am also collaborating with an Assistant Professor at Baylor College (Waco), Chris Kearney, who has specialized expertise in plant virology.   The three of us will work together to prepare vaccines and test them."

Stay tuned for the second part of this two-part posting, when Dr. McCormick talks about the arc of her career and why she chose to return to academia after a considerable period working in industry. 

Patricia Kutza is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist. When not writing, she can be found mastering her camel-spin on ice, photographing outdoor murals, or catching halibut in San Pablo Bay. She welcomes feedback at pkutza@pacbell.net

Touro professor Dr. Alison McCormick's research promotes therapeutic uses of tobacco Photo credit:  Dr. Alison McCormick
Touro professor Dr. Alison McCormick's research promotes therapeutic uses of tobacco Photo credit: Dr. Alison McCormick