“Is Ebola rare? The few cases in the US last year were extremely rare, so absolutely—if it is in the United States.”
Roland Wolkowicz, PhD
Professor of Biology
Director, Flow Cytometry Facility
San Diego State University
There was no shortage of blunt, realistic, candid observations from Dr. Roland Wolkowicz, an expert virologist, as he spoke with us about the dynamic interplay between government, politics, society, and science.
He continues, “There were more than 3,000 people infected (with the Ebola virus), with at least 2,000 deaths near the border of Uganda and Congo in Africa. So, is it rare?” he repeats. “Rare, in infectious diseases, can mean rare when you want to keep it this way; but evolution is not predictable. A rare viral disease can become the next influenza pandemic.”
From the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel where he received his PhD, to Stanford University Medical School where he did his postdoctoral studies, Dr. Wolkowicz has been trained in many scientific disciplines including microbiology, cell biology, cancer biology, and virology. Now at San Diego State University (SDSU), he wears many hats as an esteemed professor and virologist, director of the flow cytometry facility, director of the Research Education Core of the SDSU/UCSD cancer partnership, and mentor to hundreds of students.
He described his career path and why his lab now studies RNA viruses transmitted primarily by mosquitoes, such as West Nile, dengue, and Zika viruses of the Flaviviridae family and chikungunya of the Togaviridae family. “After my training as a student, I moved to the US to work in Gary Nolan’s lab at Stanford. There I wanted to study HIV, so I became more of a virologist/ immunologist, and I submerged myself in a world where we used retroviral technology for protein expression, cell line production, and drug discovery—and now this is the basis for my research at SDSU.”
Dr. Wolkowicz’ team develops assays that can be used for drug discovery against those viruses of interest. They depend on a workflow that spans various molecular cell biology techniques. “We rely on products from Thermo Fisher Scientific, such as Invitrogen Lipofectamine reagents, to produce viral particles and to engineer cell lines. We use various primary antibodies, both fluorescent and nonfluorescent, for detection by flow cytometry or western blotting. Our cell-based systems are based on fluorescent protein reporters, such as green fluorescent protein (GFP) or epitope-tagged proteins, for classical flow cytometry. If we analyze with flow cytometry, then of course we can adapt all those assays for detection using plate readers or microscopy.”
Wolkowicz passionately continues, “Why not work on viruses that still don’t have therapies? Our assays for drug discovery are very biotechnology-oriented. Some people think biotechnology is not biology, but I completely disagree. I believe that in order to be a strong biotechnologist, you need to first understand biology; specifically, cell biology. My research falls into a place that is a bit in between industry and academia. I strongly believe that there are not enough links between these areas. We need to leverage each other: industry generally has the budget capabilities that academia does not, but academia has the freedom in science and research that industry may not.”
In his opinion, rare disease research is in a tough spot because of the geopolitics in science and specifically in the US. “Although these viruses are considered rare in the US, sadly, if you ask Brazilian authorities, they will tell you they are not. Today in the US, it’s difficult to get funded if the disease is very rare here but affects other parts of the globe. Can we blame ourselves? I believe that Brazilians care about Zika, dengue, and chikungunya more than other diseases that don’t affect them. It’s human nature. Some of the diseases we study were very rare when they were discovered, but today there’s a pandemic of Dengue virus in the tropics. Global warming, combined with humidity and winds, has spread mosquitoes and will continue to do so. It’s just a question of time; we will eventually have more of those diseases in places such as Florida. I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing science only when funded, and only when translational—I think it’s important to be ready.
“I’m a strong believer that science and knowledge can narrow gaps, not just in science but among people. That’s the goal of biomedicine in general, correct? There’s a big relationship between science and society.
It’s very difficult to do science in a vacuum, or when it has nothing to do with the world we live in. At the end of the day, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is valuable; but when knowledge and science can help humans of all kinds that look different and speak different languages, then its purpose is far greater.”
For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.