Pathologist Joins Faculty to Focus on AIDS and Dengue Fever Vaccines

David Watkins, Ph.D., an accomplished investigator studying the mechanisms of viral evasion from the immune system, has joined the Miller School faculty as professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Pathology.

Long funded by the National Institutes of Health, Watkins and his lab are focused on the development of vaccines for viruses that affect millions of people worldwide, particularly HIV and dengue fever. With approximately 30 million people living with HIV and 50 to 100 million people infected annually with dengue, effective vaccines against these two viruses are among the world’s top public health priorities.

Watkins also joins the Miller School’s acclaimed Developmental Center for AIDS Research (DCFAR), as the center makes an expected transition to one of the nation’s full-fledged Centers for Aids Research with an anticipated $7.5 million NIH grant.

He and his research team will investigate novel ways to make an effective vaccine against HIV using the yellow fever vaccine. “We will be exploring the idea that we can insert fragments of the AIDS virus into the yellow fever vaccine, and then use this to induce immune responses against the AIDS virus,” Watkins said.

This work cuts across national boundaries, and includes a long-standing collaboration with a group from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, home to leading experts and producers of the majority of the world’s supply of the yellow fever vaccine. Watkins also will collaborate with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York.

Born in Uganda, Watkins grew up in Trinidad, and was educated in the United Kingdom. He earned his undergraduate degree in zoology and biology from Durham University in 1982, then came to the United States, where he received a Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Rochester. As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, he studied the evolution of the immune system and started to develop his interest in the relationship between host genetics and disease.

After joining the Harvard faculty in 1989, he moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992, where he started a program using the rhesus monkey to study simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infection as an animal model to understand HIV-infected humans. He currently uses animal models to study how some rare HIV-infected humans control replication of HIV, a finding which “could lead to novel vaccine strategies for controlling HIV replication.”

During his time in Madison, Watkins also served on several NIH grant review committees and received the Elizabeth Glaser Scientist Award.

“The Department of Pathology is extremely pleased that David has joined our expanding faculty,” said Richard Cote, M.D., professor and Joseph R. Coulter Jr. Chair of Pathology, and director of The Dr. John T. Macdonald Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute at the University of Miami. “He will be a real leader in the Department’s efforts to help solve some of the most complex medical problems facing people throughout the world, and a tremendous asset to the already world-renowned HIV programs at the Miller School of Medicine. Dr. Watkins’ work in HIV/AIDS and dengue research has the potential to impact the lives of millions of people.”

Savita Pahwa, M.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, and pediatrics, and director of the Miami DCFAR, echoed his sentiments. “Dr. Watkins’ contributions will be invaluable to the center’s Vaccine Scientific Working Group,” she said.

For his part, Watkins said, “I am delighted to be part of the University of Miami’s vibrant medical enterprise and am happy to be closer to both my childhood home in the West Indies, and my adopted country of Brazil.”

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