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AAAS Fellow Roy Curtiss Talks Vaccines, Microbiome and the Rewards of a Life in Science

Roy Curtiss
Roy Curtiss III is the university professor of microbiology and director of the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University | The Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University

The American Society for Microbiology recently awarded its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award to AAAS Fellow Roy Curtiss III. Curtiss, who is the university professor of microbiology and director of the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University, has performed pioneering research on a variety of topics in microbiology. He has developed E. coli strains for use in gene cloning, engineered Salmonella bacteria to make a new type of vaccine, and modified cyanobacteria for biofuel applications. Curtiss recently spoke with AAAS MemberCentral Blogger Summer Allen about his research and advances in microbiology.

AAAS Member Central Blogger Summer Allen: Your lab has made great strides in engineering vaccines using Salmonella bacteria. What are the advantages of this type of vaccine over conventional vaccines?
Roy Curtiss, university professor of microbiology and director of the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University: There are many. First of all, we can engineer the attenuated Salmonella so that it is totally safe in newborns (at least in animals—it hasn't been tested in newborn humans). It's totally safe for the immunodeficient (again, this was in mice) and effective without causing any problems in malnourished individuals. Importantly, it can be used in mothers-to-be and the offspring are more readily immunized with the same vaccine than are offspring from mother mice that didn't get immunized. The other thing is you can produce this vaccine and freeze-dry it so it's relatively stable at ambient temperatures. It can be reconstituted and administered orally by a person that has no training.
The important thing is it's needle free. You automatically eliminate a cost of about $1.25 for every syringe. This is inordinately important for trying to develop vaccines to control infectious disease in the developing world—whether you're talking about Ebola or influenza or whatever. Needle dependency, when needles are expensive and tend to be reused, leads to transmission of hepatitis and HIV.
These Salmonella-based vaccines can enhance the health of agriculturally important animals as well. Controlling things like Salmonella and E. coli in chickens, for example, lessens the likelihood that those microbes pass through the food chain and get into your grocery store or cafeteria.
AAASMC: Antibiotic resistant pathogens are a growing threat both in terms of agriculture and human health. Do you think these vaccines could help with that?
Curtiss:  I've been involved, almost since day one, in the popularization of the excessive use of antibiotics in agriculture. Over 60 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States are used in agriculture. I think that if you can prevent the diseases and the microbes that are responsible for the use of antibiotics, the problem will go away. And it's also much more effective in terms of reducing health care costs. Diagnosis and treatment are wonderful, and thank goodness we have ways to identify problems and make people healthy, but if we could prevent the disease in the first place— I don't care what the disease is—that's the way to reduce health care costs. Vaccinate. Vaccinate. Vaccinate. But you've got to have the vaccines to vaccinate.
AAASMC: Congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Microbiology! What was your reaction when you heard you had received the award?
Curtiss: I was stunned. I didn't expect this. I thought ASM might recognize me for something else. I figured they were going to give me a prize for most service to the society without ever being elected an officer [laughing] so to get this other one was a total shock. The neat thing about it is that I can give you a brief seminar on each of the 19 previous recipients. All these people, at one time or another, I had a professional relationship with.  
AAASMC: What current research in microbiology excites you the most?
Curtiss: The whole awareness of the microbiome. This was stuff [we worked on] in the 50s and 60s, but now, of course, you can do all the sequencing and this is very exciting. In one of my vaccine projects we think we can alter the microbiome by immunization and reduce inflammatory responses and thereby reduce things like inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, clostridium difficile. I'm now using the vaccine strategy—this is with my wife—to see if we can alter the microbiome to make us healthier. I find the whole thing very exciting.
I think of the microbiome not just from the point of view of animals. I'm a big believer that we're a dependent critter and plants are there for a reason and we wouldn't here without them. I like to tell people when I'm talking about cyanobacteria, "Ok, try holding your breath every other breath and only have 2.5 breaths  per minute  instead of 5.  You're having trouble? Thank your lucky stars for all those cyanobacteria in the oceans. They produce 50% of the oxygen that you're breathing right now. So be kind to those microbes." When I hear things about climate change and acidification of the oceans, that's catastrophe for me.
AAASMC:  What is your best piece of advice for young scientists?
Curtiss: Be observant and ask questions and don't take "I don't know" for an answer. Wondering about anything you see and trying to figure out why it is— you find out that sometimes nobody bothered to ask that question. Be inquisitive and be a good listener and don't be afraid to ask questions of anyone. Too many people feel self-conscious. I've told my students over the years, "It's not a sin to be ignorant; it's a sin to remain so." The only way you rectify that is to ask questions. 


Summer Allen