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Claire M. Fraser Is a Pioneer Who’s Just Getting Started

Claire M. Fraser.
Credit: University of Maryland
School of Medicine

Few scientists can be credited with launching a new field of study; Claire M. Fraser, Director of the Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of them.

A microbiologist and geneticist who is regarded as a pioneer in genomic medicine, Fraser has a bio that is characterized by a list of achievements and distinctions that are as numerous as they are noteworthy. One the most notable among her many estimable successes is a discovery that launched a new scientific discipline called microbial genomics: In 1995, Fraser was part of the team at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a nonprofit research institute where Fraser served as Director from 1998 until 2007, that sequenced the complete genetic code of a free-living organism — Haemophilus influenzae, which causes ear or sinus infections, lower respiratory tract infections, and meningitis in children.

This discovery was nothing short of a breakthrough that changed microbiology forever. Using genomics tools, researchers can now delve into investigations such as bacterial evolution or outbreaks of bacterial infections. Scientists are able to explore questions such as the control of gene expression and the interaction of proteins within microbial cells. Genomic information can provide scientists with crucial information that may aid in the development of vaccines and other advancements.

Fraser and her team at TIGR also sequenced the bacterium that causes syphilis, as well as those responsible for Lyme disease, cholera, chlamydia, and other diseases, in addition to a number of important environmental microbes. Fraser even helped identify the source of the deadly 2001 anthrax attack which terrorized our nation.

In 2007, Fraser launched IGS at the University of Maryland. Fraser’s research is now focused primarily on the human gut microbiota in health and a variety of diseases.

Fraser is also a candidate for AAAS President-elect — a nomination that she said she was honored to receive. The experience of having previously served on the AAAS Board cemented her appreciation of the critically important work AAAS does to promote and champion science, said Fraser. Of her nomination, Fraser said, “First, it’s a tremendous honor; AAAS is a critically important organization.” According to Fraser, organizations like AAAS are more crucial today than ever because the problems we face today go beyond, say, just securing funding for research. “In the current political climate, one of the biggest challenges that we as a society face is non-believers and naysayers,” said Fraser. The challenge, said Fraser, is to recognize the vehement anti-science sentiment that currently exists, acknowledge that science is under attack, and find ways to support science and educate the public.

If elected, Fraser sees one of her roles as not only a champion of science but a negotiator of sorts. “I’ve been pretty good at identifying ways to get people to agree to common interests,” said Fraser. Aside from her desire to help promote science, another reason that prompted her to accept the nomination to be a candidate for AAAS President was her desire to express a karmic gratitude. “I’ve had such phenomenal opportunities,” said Fraser. “For everything science has been for me, I’m trying to give back.”

As with many leaders in science, Fraser’s love of discovery and learning was something that took root in her childhood. Both of her parents worked in public education — her father was a high school principal and her mother was an elementary school teacher — and Fraser was inspired to follow in their footsteps. “They both seemed to enjoy their work and I thought, ‘I’ll be a teacher,’” said Fraser. As a child growing up in a suburb of Boston, Fraser loved learning, and was the type of kid who looked forward to going back to school in the fall. A straight-A student, Fraser was particularly inspired by a high school biology teacher, who ignited her lifelong passion for science.

Fraser had an inkling that she wanted to work in biological sciences when she grew up, but she didn’t know anyone who had a career in research. “I thought I’d have to be a doctor,” said Fraser. She attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Troy, New York, where she reveled in the fact that everybody was interested in math, science, and engineering.

There, in her senior year, she had an opportunity to work in a research lab on her own project.  “I absolutely loved it,” said Fraser. “I spent every spare moment in the lab.” Thus, she sought out a graduate program and after graduating from RPI in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology, Fraser entered the State University of New York-Buffalo to pursue a Ph.D. in pharmacology.

One of the labs she worked in while at SUNY Buffalo was that of a young assistant professor, J. Craig Venter. There, Fraser studied receptor proteins using scientific techniques based on immunology and tissue culture — an endeavor that her thesis committee was pessimistic about because they doubted it would work. Venter, who later became Fraser’s first husband, encouraged her to follow her instincts, and she learned a valuable lesson from this experience: to not be afraid of taking new approaches.

After Fraser received her Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo in 1981, she continued to work on the biology of G protein-coupled receptors, and she and her then-husband eventually went on to continue this work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1984.

When Venter left the NIH to found TIGR in 1992, Fraser followed him there, and served as TIGR’s vice president of research. There, the entire TIGR team worked to sequence the complete chromosome of Haemophilus influenza. “Nobody thought it could be done,” said Fraser. “It was a game-changer.” At TIGR, Fraser continued to focus on microbes, both those that cause disease and those that are found in unique environments.

She left TIGR in 2007, partly for personal reasons (she and Venter divorced in 2005), but also for professional ones, and launched IGS. “It was wonderful that my colleagues and I were able to drive the field while we were at TIGR,” said Fraser. “But all of us felt a bit restless; we didn’t have access on a daily basis to clinical colleagues. We couldn’t walk down the hall and meet and brainstorm.” IGS gave Fraser a new way of working with fellow scientists, to make use of each person’s expertise to enhance a project. “There is such extraordinary science that can be done through collaboration,” said Fraser. “There is nothing more beautiful than collaboration in which everybody brings expertise to the table and mutual respect for all partners.”

One example of such a collaboration of experts — say, microbiologists, neurologists, and clinicians—cited by Fraser is a meeting of the minds over an illness such as Alzheimer’s disease. “It has been postulated that some component of Alzheimer’s disease may be infectious in origin,” noted Fraser. “Bacteria associated with periodontal disease have been found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.”

Fraser’s current research is focused on the function and structure of human gut microbiota (the collection of all the organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses that share our body space). For the past decade, Fraser has been working almost exclusively on the human GI tract and the potential of microbiome studies. (Microbiome is the collection of all the organisms and their collective genetic material.) “The potential of microbiome studies is enormous,” said Fraser. One of the most important contributions gut microbes make to health is by keeping inflammation under control, said Fraser. And inflammation, said Fraser, is a component of almost every chronic disease.

Given the important role gut microbes can play in our health, said Fraser, food can be regarded as medicine. “We’re feeding all the microbes in our GI tract ecosystem,” said Fraser. “When we feed the microbes crap, we hurt the ecosystem.”

When things get out of whack in the GI tract, it may have an impact beyond the gut to everything from mood, immune system function, and behavior.

“One of the new ways I think about health and disease is based upon my research for the past ten years,” said Fraser. “One of the things western medicine doesn’t focus on enough is health and wellness.”

As with her seminal work sequencing the genes of disease-causing bacteria, Fraser is still forging ahead into ground-breaking research that may have widespread implications. With her keen mind and formidable instincts for science exploration at work on these inquiries, humankind is sure to benefit from what she finds next.

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Katherine Lee

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