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Vol. LX, No. 21
October 17, 2008

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Whitley To Deliver Straus Memorial Lecture on Infectious Diseases

  Dr. Richard J. Whitley  
  Dr. Richard J. Whitley  

The NIAID Laboratory of Clinical Infectious Diseases will host the Stephen E. Straus Memorial Lecture on Infectious Diseases in memory of its colleague and friend, Dr. Stephen E. Straus. His former colleagues describe him as a brilliant clinical researcher and a compassionate physician who had abundant wisdom and a keen sense of humor. His 30-year career with the NIAID lab included tenure as chief from 1991 to 1999 and continuing as a senior investigator after his appointment as first director of NCCAM. His scientific accomplishments defined him as an international leader on the pathogenesis, treatment and prevention of human herpesvirus diseases.

Fellow herpes expert Dr. Richard J. Whitley, who was also Straus’s close friend, will deliver the NIAID Straus lecture, titled “Antiviral Therapy of Herpesvirus Infections: Thirty-Five Years of Progress,” on Tuesday, Oct. 28 at 2 p.m. in Lipsett Amphitheater, Bldg. 10.

The Loeb professor of pediatrics and professor of pediatrics, microbiology, medicine and neurosurgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Whitley is also principal investigator for NIAID’s collaborative antiviral study group, a multi-center clinical trials network that conducts pediatric and adult research trials to evaluate novel therapeutic regimens for herpesvirus and other infections.

Whitley has dedicated more than three decades to understanding the molecular pathogenesis of herpes simplex virus infections—that is, the origin, development and spread of these viruses, as well as how the immune system responds to them. He applies these principles to develop and evaluate new antiviral therapies. He explains, “Although human herpes simplex viruses have been documented since ancient Greek times—Hippocrates used the word ‘herpes,’ meaning to creep or crawl, to describe skin lesions that may have been caused by the virus—most of our findings relating to infection and treatment have been made during the 20th century. We now understand that these viruses are especially tricky in terms of treatment and eradication because they establish latency and can be reactivated. In other words, once you have the virus, you have it for life and can transmit it for life—even if you don’t have any symptoms.”

While a cure remains elusive, the past 35 years have witnessed significant progress towards understanding and treating herpesvirus- related conditions. This will be the focus of Whitley’s talk. Specifically, he will discuss how lessons learned from working with first- and second- generation antiviral therapies have contributed to our understanding of disease pathogenesis and diagnosis, viral latency, antiviral resistance, controlled clinical trials, and, ultimately, improved human health. Drawing from his own extensive work with varicella-zoster virus (which causes chickenpox and shingles), herpes simplex encephalitis, neonatal herpes simplex virus infection and congenital cytomegalovirus infection, Whitley will talk about how laboratory and clinical studies continue to complement each other and evolve, resulting in new and better treatments and diagnostics for an even broader range of herpesvirus-related diseases. He explains, “Steve Straus was the first to show that the drug acyclovir can be used to suppress recurrent oral and genital herpes infections. This knowledge was used to develop treatment for diseases that can be fatal: In our patients, we’ve been able to reduce the death rate from herpes encephalitis from 70 percent to 13 percent. In short, advances in research and antiviral therapy are not only improving lives, but are also saving lives.”

As did Straus, Whitley has a keen interest in translating advances in molecular biology to the clinic. The author of more than 300 articles, Whitley’s other research interests include West Nile virus encephalitis and influenza in infants; the development of antiviral drugs to treat orthopox virus infections; and the engineering of herpes simplex virus for gene therapy and to treat brain tumors.

A New Jersey native, Whitley earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Duke University and went on to medical school at George Washington University. After graduating in 1971, he moved to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to complete a pediatrics internship and then an infectious disease and virology fellowship. He now directs the UAB division of pediatric infectious diseases and is vice-chair of the department of pediatrics. As co-director of the UAB Center for Emerging Infections and Emergency Preparedness, Whitley is also heavily involved in activities that create awareness of and develop strategies for dealing with pandemic influenza. He serves as vice president of the Infectious Disease Society of America, chairs the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases board of scientific counselors and participates in numerous data and safety monitoring boards for ongoing clinical studies. He was recently named to the NIAID Advisory Council for a term to end in 2012. NIHRecord Icon

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