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Flu is a wily foe. Every year its shapeshifting nature frustrates the health officials, researchers and manufacturers trying to create an effective vaccine.

Perhaps it’s only fitting that a relentless researcher with a shapeshifting career path is helping write the future of the flu vaccine.

“I had a weird way of getting here,” UW professor of microbiology Deborah Fuller says with a laugh.

Today, Fuller is developing a universal flu vaccine that might make the annual poke a thing of the past. But the journey to her lab in South Lake Union started in 1988, deep into a Wisconsin winter. Fuller was a first-year grad student at the University of Wisconsin studying environmental toxicology when she realized she had no passion for smoke plume formations. She turned in her lab coat and took a leave of absence.

Lean times followed. Fuller sold blood and plasma to pay for groceries. She still had access to the university’s greenhouses, where she often sat in shorts, planted seeds and wondered what to do.

“I was one of those students who always pushed hard, and until then I had never failed to meet my goals. I felt like I was failing myself.”

The soil offered an answer, in a manner of speaking. Fuller got a low-level job at a biotechnology company in Madison … planting seeds in a greenhouse.  The company had developed a technology that fast-tracked the creation of genetically engineered crops: an electric-powered, 300-pound behemoth of a “gene gun.” The contraption generated enough force to propel DNA-coated gold particles into a plant’s meristem, a type of tissue that drives growth and regeneration.

Fuller and other researchers at the company soon started to wonder about the gene gun: If you could transfer DNA into plants, could you do it with people?

Ever the resourceful biologist, Fuller went out into a field one day and collected bugs and little critters. They started testing (after getting all necessary permissions) and immediately had success delivering genes into said critters.

The experiments worked their way up the evolutionary ladder to mice; Fuller worked her way up to senior scientist running her own lab. She started to inject DNA into mice and ran into a pesky problem. As soon as the DNA started producing a protein, the mice would develop an immune response that got rid of it.

“We saw the data and said, ‘This is a new way of vaccinating!’”

Deb Fuller demonstrates a gene gun prototype
Fuller demonstrates an early prototype of the gene gun she co-developed, which injects DNA directly into skin cells. (Clare McLean)

More than a decade later, Fuller is still following this approach to fight flu. Her strategy: attack the parts of the virus that don’t change. Fuller’s lab is researching a DNA vaccine that instructs the body’s immune system to seek and destroy the infection. If the body’s immune system can recognize these conserved regions of the virus, a vaccine could be a one-and-done deal.

The vaccine’s delivery mechanism would be a version of the gene gun that Fuller co-invented in Madison a decade ago, which injects DNA directly into skin cells. Most DNA vaccines are delivered by a needle and syringe into muscle, which isn’t efficient since most of the DNA just degrades in the spaces between cells. Fuller’s gene gun eliminates this waste.

Fuller was recruited to UW in 2010. She often tells her students she did everything backwards: first her career in Madison; then a period of learning from various mentors who were leaders in the field, similar to a postdoc; then finally a Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin, 10-plus years after she turned in her lab coat and left graduate school.

As she teaches students how to sidestep a virus’s genetic drift, she hopes they realize it’s OK to drift a bit both inside and outside the lab.

“I tell them there’s no one way to do things — you can take always a different path. Sometimes you just have to plant seeds in the greenhouse and see what comes up.”

Guest Writer: Jake Siegel


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