Shining stars in their fields

Two Hopkins scientists are hailed by magazine for their creative approaches

September 23, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,sun reporter

Tucked in a metal drawer at a Johns Hopkins University science lab is the prehistoric remnant of a lost world: the branch of a 45-million-year-old tree.

Geobiologist Hope Jahren found the branch, from a Metasequoia, on a barren island in the Canadian Arctic about five years ago. She travels the globe collecting such relics, trying to reconstruct ancient worlds.

Nathan Wolfe is working with indigenous hunters in Africa. As an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, he wants to know why diseases jump from animals to humans, and whether their spreading can be forecast the way we now predict weather.

"It's still real hard to forecast the weather, and we're probably where weather forecasting was 30 or 40 years ago," says Wolfe, 35.

Jahren and Wolfe were featured this month in Popular Science magazine's annual "Brilliant 10" list - a collection of scientists selected each year by the editors for "pushing their fields in new directions."

The editors chose the 10 from about 100 candidates nominated by colleagues at universities and labs around the country.

"We looked for people who were doing notable work and using new approaches and new methodologies," said Emily Laber-Warren, executive editor of the magazine, which sells 1.3 million copies a month.

Wolfe and Jahren are modest about their achievements, but both do the kind of work that others describe as innovative.

Jahren, trained as a soil scientists, blends geology and biology to reconstruct ancient worlds.

"She's not necessarily the first person to do what she does, but she is one of the most productive," said Nan Arens, a colleague and expert on the origin of flowering plants at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.

Hunters at risk

Wolfe is credited with being able to work with hunters in remote areas and conduct research that could one day save them from fatal diseases.

"He's incredibly forward-thinking in his ideas," said Anne W. Rimoin, another Hopkins researcher based in Africa.

In a telephone interview from his home in Cameroon, Wolfe emphasized that he is part of an international team of about 40 researchers and health experts working together in Africa.

Wolfe has been in Central Africa six years, studying viruses such as monkeypox and HIV.

Epidemics are inevitable, he said. But he hopes to spend much of the rest of his life in Africa trying to prevent epidemics by identifying them early, which should trigger prevention measures and vaccine development.

"Even if we're successful, we'll still have epidemics. There's no way around that. But even if we have 10 or 20 epidemics, maybe we'll be better prepared for at least some of them. If we could give three or four years lead time, if we could have done that for HIV, we could've had a huge impact," he said.

Since the mid-1990s, scientists have been aware of the threat posed by cross-species transmission of retroviruses from animals to humans. The more cross-species transmission that occurs, the greater the chance that a virus will mutate and kill humans.

Retroviruses, such as HIV, pose a particular threat because they can plant themselves in a host cell's DNA and replicate, making them difficult to destroy. HIV is believed to have originated in a different viral form in primates.

But the idea of forecasting emerging diseases is a relatively new concept, and researchers know little about how diseases jump from animals to humans and how many can make the jump.

Wolfe and other experts believe that in developing regions, hunters may be among the first people exposed. In many African cultures, the hunting of animals, from antelopes to monkeys, is a matter of survival. And when hunters butcher animals, researchers say, they may be getting infections through cuts or exposed area on the skin, he said.

"Hunters might lead us to the origins of these viruses," he said.

Shortly after he arrived, Wolfe began to gather blood samples from 1,099 hunters in Central Africa and test them for Simian Foamy Virus (SFV), another retrovirus that like HIV is capable of jumping from primates to humans.

In an article last year in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, Wolfe reported that 10 of the hunters, or 1 percent of those tested, had antibodies for SFV.

SFV is relatively benign in humans. But knowing hunters pick up such pathogens from animals confirms the value of monitoring their health and habits, he said. "Viruses have to be from somewhere, and it's almost always a case that they're from an animal," said Wolfe.

Along with his research, Wolfe works with hunters to help them come up with ways to avoid diseases. But he says a recent talk with some hunters in the Democratic Republic of Congo was an education for him.

"I asked how many of them had cut themselves recently, and they all just laughed," he said. "They had all cut themselves. They're butchering what they hunt, and they cut themselves all the time."

Changing Earth

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.