At the forefront of vaccine research to safeguard the military


(Connie Schmaljohn)
August 6, 2013

Since she was a young girl, Connie Schmaljohn knew she wanted a career that involved saving lives. More than 30 years ago, she started down the professional path toward achieving that dream by becoming an Army research scientist and working on vaccines to prevent diseases not typically found in this country, but which afflict members of the military overseas.

Schmaljohn, now an internationally recognized expert on Hantaviruses and hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome, uses molecular biology tools to develop and test vaccines for a range of viruses. She and the scientists in her lab use recombinant DNA, a form of artificial DNA, to take the genes out of potentially deadly viruses so they are no longer infectious.

“We like to call them next-gen vaccines,” said Schmaljohn, a senior research scientist for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Md.

Research scientists at USAMRIID were among the first to use these DNA vaccines. “We’re always in the forefront of what the technological state of the art is and then we push it further,” Schmaljohn said.

Schmaljohn’s expertise enabled her and her colleagues to identify what was going on when the number of cases of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) exploded in the southwestern part of United States in the 1990s. Previously, the severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory illness due to Hantavirus infections was not known to cause disease in the Western hemisphere, and Hantaviruses had only been associated with kidney failure diseases in Asia and Europe.

But then HPS started felling people here.

 “Because of the groundwork she had done, she was able to identify the outbreak in the Four Corners as Hantavirus,” said Jean Patterson, chairman of Virology and Immunology at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, referring to a region comprising parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. “It was the first time it was identified in America.”

Historically, USAMRIID has blazed medical trails, since the military serves all over the world and comes into contact with viruses not found in the United States and therefore aren’t widely studied here, said Colleen Jonsson, director of the Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Louisville.

“They were the frontline for exotic pathogens predominantly because soldiers serve in many, many countries,” she said. After 9/11, the National Institutes of Health also started sponsoring research to study these agents, she added.

Schmaljohn’s work on dangerous pathogens may be aimed at protecting military personnel, but the benefits spill over into the civilian population, as the Hantavirus outbreak demonstrated.

Her lab works on two types of vaccines: those that protect against medical infectious diseases and those that defend against agents that could be used as weapons in biological warfare.

Researchers at USAMRIID were the first to start testing DNA vaccines for biodefense, using a method of delivering DNA vaccines with a short electrical burst. The first study of this electroporation method dispensed a vaccine to muscle in a clinical study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with two vaccines for Hantaviruses.

The next study will deliver the vaccine to the skin instead of muscle, a less invasive, less painful method. Schmaljohn hopes the immune response will be even better.

Schmaljohn decided early on she wanted help save lives. She calls the story silly now, but she was watching a TV show, in which a little girl’s mother died from a disease. “I said, ‘That’s not right.’ ”

At first she thought she was going to be a doctor, but realized she preferred the broader reach of medical research. “I wanted people to not die of disease,” she said.

Schmaljohn describes the experiments she performed—and planned, designed and tested—as the highlight of her career.  “Every top moment has to do with an experiment,” she said. “I don’t know how many years I’ve gone to parties or dinners and said, ‘I have to go check my experiment.’ It was a rollercoaster of emotion. Did it work? Did it not work?”

Schmaljohn now mostly manages other scientists, but experiences “vicarious happiness,” through the people who work for her, she said. She continues to focus on keeping soldiers healthy and safe.

“My job is to bring the newest technology to the Army and improve our science, and make us be at the very front of what we can do to protect the military from disease.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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