- Associated Press - Saturday, March 14, 2015

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) - Before Discover magazine named her one of “The 50 Most Important Women Scientists,” before she became president-elect of the International Society for Vaccines, before she was nicknamed by her former students “The Mother of DNA Vaccines,” Dr. Margaret A. Liu was a kid growing up in Durango.

An outstanding kid, to be sure. Co-Valedictorian of the Durango High School Class of 1973, named a U.S. Presidential Scholar and recipient of a Boettcher Scholarship - a free, four-year ride to any school in Colorado - her teachers knew she was going places, said Bobby Wright, former DHS principal and her former math teacher.

Where she has gone is the top of the heap in the vaccine world.

She logs between 100,000 and 250,000 frequent-flyer miles every year, organizing or speaking at conferences, often presenting findings from the almost 150 research papers she has co-written. In the private sector, she has run labs and research groups of up to 150 people, and she has been an adviser to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on its vaccine program.

A holder of six patents for everything from synthetic hepatitis C genes to polynucleotide tuberculosis vaccines, Liu advises doctoral and postdoctoral students as a foreign adjunct professor in the Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and as an adjunct full professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Her main job these days is consulting in vaccines and immunotherapy for biotech and investment companies, universities and governmental scientific research councils, including the Chinese National Engineering Laboratory for Therapeutic Vaccines. Therapeutic vaccines would cure, or at least ameliorate, diseases such as cancer, diabetes and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

What is a DNA vaccine, and is it available?

“We first worked on influenza A, and HIV is like influenza in that the envelope mutates incredibly quickly, but inside, the functional proteins don’t mutate nearly as fast,” she said. “So for HIV, for example, the vaccine can generate T-cells that recognize those bits of proteins.”

Accelerated mutation is why the flu vaccine is more effective some years rather than others because some years, the match between the strain used to create the vaccine is closer to what circulates in other years, Liu said. A DNA vaccine would be effective across many strains.

Right now, some of the results of Liu’s work are available only for animals, but several are in clinical trials.

“The most effective vaccine for many diseases is going to be complex and may involve multiple technologies,” she said. “It will involve both broad antibody as well as T-cell responses.”

Vaccines, of course, are now in the news a lot.

“I find it amazing, sometimes,” she said while visiting Durango recently, “that affluent mothers are refusing to vaccinate their children when mothers in poorer countries would give anything to be able to vaccinate theirs. I’ve worked with the World Health Organization and other groups to figure out how we get the 80 poorest countries to the table much sooner.”

Why does she think there’s such a backlash against vaccines in developed countries?

“Vaccines are a victim of our own success,” she said. “We have forgotten the devastation of infectious diseases. People have forgotten that so many kids, particularly infants, would die.”

People also don’t understand that some of the diseases, even if they don’t kill a child, can leave lasting disabilities and health problems, she said, citing measles complications such as deafness, pneumonia, encephalitis, cognitive disabilities or a syndrome called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, where a person can die of complications up to seven years after the original illness.

“People say, ‘My kid might have a bad reaction to the vaccine,’” Liu said. “Why aren’t they more afraid that their child will be the one who dies of measles? Especially because many people have immunodeficiencies.”

Is it a problem of a lack of science education?

“I think it’s that people think they know better than their doctors, they like conspiracy theories and they like getting their news from the Internet,” Liu said.

People worry about getting the disease from the vaccine, as we’re seeing in countries such as Nigeria and the polio vaccine.

“If you get the polio vaccine in the U.S., there’s no chance of getting polio because we use the injectable inactivated virus vaccine, so there’s no live virus in the vaccine,” Liu said. “In poorer countries, they can’t afford injectables, and the weakened virus in the oral polio vaccines can revert to wild polio. But they really don’t understand the risk to society. If only one kid gets polio, people may decide the polio vaccine risk isn’t worth it. But it’s a massive risk to society.”

The U.S. is in a unique position, she said.

“We’ve been protected by geography from world wars and pestilence,” she said. “But we forget in today’s day and age, that people travel around. There are countries in Europe that have very low vaccination rates. The recent spread of measles happened because someone apparently contracted it in Belgium and then visited Disneyland.”

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Information from: Durango Herald, https://www.durangoherald.com

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