Celebrating Science: Promoting immunization and striving to develop new vaccines

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We celebrate some of our JABSOM scientists this week as we welcome the National Diversity in STEM Conference to Hawaiʻi Nei.

“Research is the process of learning how pieces of knowledge fit together in order to solve a complex scientific puzzle,” said Dr. Eleanore Chuang, “and I have always enjoyed solving puzzles.

The Zaire Ebolavirus causes one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases, which is characterized by severe hemorrhagic fever and a mortality rate of up to 90% in humans. At present there is no drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent or treat Ebola. Dr. Eleanore Chuang is part of The University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) effort to develop a vaccine against the Ebola Virus and other viruses that produce hemorrhagic fever. Dr. Chuang is a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Axel Lehrer, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology.

Ebola was responsible for the unprecedented epidemic in West Africa a few years ago and is the cause of ongoing outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Certain experimental Ebola vaccines have proven effective, but to maintain their efficacy they must be transported and stored at ultra-low temperatures (−60 °C to −80 °C), often in conditions of extreme heat. Dr. Chuang and other members of Dr. Lehrer’s team have developed a recombinant subunit Ebola vaccine with a distinct safety and thermostability profile that could make it a better option in regions with poor infrastructure where Ebola outbreaks have historically occurred.

“So far, the recombinant subunit Ebola vaccine has successfully protected mice, guinea pigs, and cynomolgus macaques against infection with Ebola,” Chuang said. “We are approaching the point when vaccine trials in humans may be possible.”

Chuang received an A.B. in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University in 1998 and a Ph.D. in Tropical Medicine from the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa (UHM) in 2017. Before starting her graduate studies in 2012, she worked as a biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary U.S. government agency in charge of conducting and funding biomedical research.

Chuang’s work has extended beyond the study of Ebola. As a doctoral student, she conducted an 11-month research project at The Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Centre (TRCARC) in Bangkok, investigating human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and human papillomavirus (HPV) co-infection. Dr. Nittaya Phanuphak (TRCARC) and Dr. Bruce Shiramizu (JABSOM) served as Chuang’s mentors. “TRCARC is involved in some pretty impressive international, multi-center HIV research as well outreach and mobile HIV testing clinics,” Chuang said, “so I feel fortunate to have had that opportunity.”

In addition to her research activities, Chuang promotes vaccination by informing the public of its importance. “Communicating about science can be really challenging but also very rewarding,” she observed. “I have been working with the Student Immunization InitiativeHawaiʻi Immunization Coalition, and the Vaccine-Preventable Cancers Workgroup to educate the public about vaccination and infectious disease prevention in general.”

Asked about her long-term professional goals, Chuang said: “In spite of political controversies, government agencies serve important functions in protecting the public’s health and welfare. I truly believe in biomedical research as a public service and hope to continue my career in that capacity.”

Chuang grew up in Beavercreek, Ohio. “Beavercreek is a bedroom community for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, headquarters of the Air Force Materiel Command,” she explained. “It’s the site for a fair amount of engineering research, so my high school had a strong STEM focus.”

A marathon runner, Chuang participated in ballet and other forms of dance in Ohio and joined an Irish dance group after moving to Hawaiʻi. In Honolulu she likes visiting the Foster Botanical Garden, “a peaceful oasis in the midst of the city”. Chuang enjoys travel, saying of her recent trip to Vienna, Austria with a friend, “We loved it – history, culture, music, dance, art and architecture.” She also has an attachment to Thailand where she spent almost a year doing research.

“Research is the process of learning how pieces of knowledge fit together in order to solve a complex scientific puzzle,” Chuang said, “and I have always enjoyed solving puzzles. Science has been my way of understanding simple natural phenomena – why the sky is blue or why you see your breath on a cold day – as well as feats of engineering – how a metal aircraft can defy gravity and fly.“