GHID Speaker Profile – Jennifer A. Philips

February 28, 2017

The Global Health Center at the Institute for Public Health is hosting its fifth annual Global Health and Infectious Disease Conference (GHID) on March 31. The Institute approached microbiologist Jennifer Philips, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Washington University School of Medicine and featured speaker at the 2017 GHID to get a preview of her presentation on “Immune Evasion Strategies of Mycobacterium tuberculosis.”

Q. What global health project(s) are you currently working on or involved with? What are you hoping to accomplish in 2017?

My laboratory studies Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis (TB). M. tuberculosis infects one in three people in the world, and it kills more people than any other infection. The success of M. tuberculosis stems from its ability to survive in macrophages, white blood cells that normally kill bacteria. We are trying to understand how M. tuberculosis evades killing by macrophages, grows within these cells, and disrupts their ability to activate the adaptive immune system. In 2017, we hope to characterize how two important virulence factors of M. tuberculosis allow the bacteria to survive in the host and determine whether these virulence factors would be useful drug targets. Our long-term goal is to translate our fundamental observations in mycobacterial pathogenesis to enable new therapies and an effective vaccine for M. tuberculosis.

Assistant Professor, Infectious Diseases, School of Medicine

Q. Where do you see the biggest gaps and need for research and funding for global health? Why do you think these are important?

I’m sure that every investigator thinks that their favorite pathogen is underfunded (and of course, they are correct!). We also think that relative to its disease burden, TB is grossly underfunded. This is undoubtedly because it is a disease that disproportionately affects people living in resource-limited settings. Even if one doesn’t care about global health, the world is a small place, and extensively drug-resistant TB is found worldwide and therefore a threat to everyone. For TB, as well as other important infectious illnesses, we need a balanced research portfolio—from basic investigation to translational and applied science.

Q. Public health is all about transdisciplinary engagement. How have you seen this approach play out in your own work?

My work involves very basic cell biology and therefore intersects with many fields of investigation outside of infectious diseases. For example, metabolic and cellular pathways that are important in atherosclerosis and neurodegeneration also play a central role in TB pathogenesis. Maybe this isn’t surprising since M. tuberculosis has evolved with humans over millennia, and its ability to cause disease is intricately linked to host cell biology. For example, lipid-laden (foamy) macrophages are found in atherosclerotic plaques as well as tuberculous granulomas. This commonality led us to collaborate with a cardiovascular colleague (Dr. Kathryn Moore, NYU School of Medicine), and together our labs discovered that M. tuberculosis takes advantage of host regulatory pathways to modulate macrophage lipid homeostasis and autophagy to its advantage. Perhaps we’ll be able to take advantage of the interest in atherosclerosis and neurodegeneration in economically developed countries to leverage new approaches to tackle TB throughout the world.

Q. What do you see as the biggest global health problem facing us today? How should we begin to develop effective solutions?

I see two major threats. First is the emergence of antibiotic resistance, which includes infections that we see every day at Barnes Jewish Hospital and also global threats such as extensively and multi-drug resistant TB. Secondly, the recent Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks illustrate the constant and unpredictable threat of emerging infectious diseases. Global warming and mass human migrations will undoubtedly foster the emergence of new infectious illness, as well as the reemergence of the old players. Effective solutions require input at all levels — basic research, disease surveillance, economic development, and the resources and infrastructure to deploy interventions around the world.

The 2017 Global Health and Infectious Disease Conference will be held on March 31 at the Eric P. Newman Educational Center on the Washington University Medical Campus. The event is free and open to all, but registration is required by March 24, 2017.

This post is part of the February 2017 “Global Health” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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