Fighting global epidemics through virus research

Dr. SaifDiseases do not respect borders or even species barriers, causing suffering in both humans and animals. They indiscriminately infect the wealthy and the poor, the young and the elderly. Dr. Linda Saif, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine is part of the Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Her research has focused on discovering the causes of disease and developing preventive vaccines to alleviate suffering in both humans and animals through in-depth studies of viruses. “Viruses cannot reproduce outside a living cell,” Dr. Saif explained. “They are the bioterrorists of the cell, hijacking its replication machinery to exploit it for their own function.” 

Moreover, lest we doubt the power of such a small adversary, we have only to be reminded that the influenza virus pandemic of 1918 claimed 20 million lives. Her laboratory group has worked extensively on enteric viruses, which cause devastating gastrointestinal disease in children and young animals. 

One enteric virus, rotavirus is recognized as the leading cause of gastroenteritis in infants and young animals worldwide. An estimated 600,000 children die of rotavirus diarrhea annually, but human rotavirus vaccines are less effective in impoverished countries where most needed. Similarly there are no vaccines or specific treatments for enteric caliciviruses (noroviruses), the leading cause of food-borne disease worldwide.

“My initial research focus was on coronavirus infections, a leading killer of baby pigs and calves,” said Dr. Saif. This virus causes gastroenteritis with subsequent dehydration and death, or it can infect the lungs causing pneumonia. For 30 years, she and the students in her lab worked and published in this area with little funding or interest in these viruses outside the veterinary community. Then from Guangdong province in China in 2003 a new disease called SARS emerged. The SARS coronavirus had jumped the species barrier from animals to humans. Suddenly her years of painstaking research provided the foundation for an understanding of this new viral pathogen in humans.

“I unexpectedly found myself at the epicenter of interest in coronaviruses,” she said. Worldwide there are only about 100 coronavirologists. Dr. Said is now a consultant to the World Health Organization in this area and her lab continues to be involved as one of only 27 WHO international SARS Reference Laboratories. We also continue since 1992 to serve as the international expert reference lab for swine coronaviruses as designated by the World Organization for Animal Health (Office International des Epizooties) in France. SARS showed us that diseases may be invisible passengers on airplanes, so that a new disease emerging in a rural village in China, may cross oceans and continents to resurface in Canada or the United States within the time it takes a plane to circumnavigate the globe. Global efforts and a new generation of bright and dedicated young scientists are needed to combat these emerging diseases.

“Being a scientist has also enabled me to generate international scientific collaborations, many resulting in lasting friendships,” said Dr. Saif. These have included a Fulbright Fellowship to Argentina to test rotavirus vaccines in herds of over 10,000 cattle, and perhaps the most challenging scientific task, service as a scientific advisor for a USAID project promoting scientific collaboration among Egyptian and Israeli scientists.

“In 2003, I was both amazed and humbled learn that I had been elected into the National Academy of Sciences,” she said. “To be in the company of Nobel Prize winning scientists at the NAS is truly inspiring. I am currently serving a three-year term as the elected chair of our Section 61:  Animal, Nutritional, and Applied Microbial Sciences.”

Currently nine countries (China, Korea, Japan, Argentina, Italy, India, Russia, Lebanon, and Turkey), along with the U.S., are represented in her lab. 

“The dedicated and outstanding work of my students, post-docs, visiting scholars and assistants and their many contributions to our research efforts have been instrumental in my success,” she said. “My greatest and lasting reward remains watching my students develop a passion for research and blossom into independent researchers and professionals.”