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Viruses, Vaccines and the "Unstoppable" Ralph Tripp

by Kelli Whitlock Burton


Intro/ The Making of a Biologist  |  Seeking Immunity/ Running Interference  |  To Avert the Next Pandemic/ Money Talks

Facility Supports Research on Disease in Animals and People



The UGA microbiologist and his research team are determined to field an innovative and potent new weapon in the fight against viral diseases. Along the way, they hope to avert a devastating avian flu pandemic that could threaten humanity.

Ralph Tripp arrives at his University of Georgia lab each day around 6 a.m. The place is deserted at that hour and the phones are silent. He puts on a pot of pekoe black tea, turns on his computer, scans his e-mail and then gets to work. There’s no one around to disturb this scientist in his relentless pursuit of treatments for respiratory illnesses. There’s also no one to catch this occasional practical joker if he’s in the mood to switch the chairs in his coworkers’ offices or replace boxes of essential office supplies with packets of ketchup.

Confront him about his high jinks and Tripp readily admits his guilt. There’s a method, he says, to such mischief. As he and his colleagues in the College of Veterinary Medicine ponder complicated biological problems about viruses, vaccines and therapies, their brains get befogged with whys and hows and what-ifs. Humor, says Tripp, clears the air. After a good laugh, the mind is refreshed, ready to tackle what once seemed elusive.

In much the same spirit, Tripp allows his intellectual gaze to wander every now and then. “Quite often scientists get so narrowly focused on a problem,” he said, “that it’s easy to forget there are greater issues in the world than getting a plaque assay [a lab procedure to determine the presence of viral particles] to work.”

His regularly refreshed and wide-ranging mind is apparently also a productive one. Since arriving at the university in early 2004, Tripp, a professor of infectious diseases and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, has assembled a lab of 18 scientists and students; helped finalize preparations for the $40 million Animal Health Research Center renovation (see story on p. 20); met with representatives from Congress and the Georgia statehouse; forged a partnership with a biotech company in Cambridge, Mass., that led to a clinical drug trial; filed three patents; and facilitated the pooling of scientific talent from across campus, particularly in nanotechnology, in order to focus on such challenges as avian flu, SARS and respiratory syncytial virus, to which virtually every American child is exposed by the age of 2.

The Making of a Biologist

As an 18-year-old freshman at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, Tripp’s interests were diverse. So he decided to major in the first class he aced. Earning his first “A” in microbiology, he indeed graduated with a degree in biology four years later. But looking back, Tripp acknowledges that his choice of path was probably not as random as it seemed. He had always leaned toward science, especially life science. Even if that first “A” were, say, in astronomy, it’s unlikely that he would have spent the past 20 years looking through a telescope instead of a microscope.

From the time Tripp started graduate school at Oregon State University, there was a good chance he’d specialize in infectious diseases. His early research subjects weren’t humans, though. He studied fish, which seemed like a good fit for someone who planned at the time to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Those plans changed in 1990 when Tripp arrived at Emory University School of Medicine to do a postdoctoral fellowship in a lab that focused on adenoviruses, a family of viruses that cause respiratory infections and have developed elaborate methods to bypass the immune system. Tripp was part of the team that identified the specific regions of the virus responsible for immune evasion.

He left Emory in 1993 for a postdoc at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, working in the lab of Nobel laureate Peter Doherty. Tripp’s studies there of influenza and herpes viruses laid the foundation for research he would later do at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he joined in 1997. One of his goals at CDC was to better understand respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which causes a serious infection in the lower respiratory tract. There was no good test or treatment for RSV, which infects hundreds of thousands of children and older adults each year. Like adenoviruses, RSV could outmaneuver the immune system, and Tripp’s goal was to figure out why.

By the time UGA hired him as an eminent scholar, Tripp had worked his way to the head of a CDC unit that studies viral immunology in respiratory viruses, authored more than 60 journal articles plus several chapters in 10 books and served as principal investigator or co-investigator on numerous projects that led to discoveries producing six patents.

What he wanted most, though, still eluded him — a better test to detect low levels of RSV, and a drug to treat it.


Intro/ The Making of a Biologist  |  Seeking Immunity/ Running Interference  |  To Avert the Next Pandemic/ Money Talks


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