Research @ KGI: Larry Grill Tackles Health Crises in Southern Africa, Talks about His New Role as KGI Dean of Research
Every summer Dr. Larry Grill takes students to Botswana to help researchers there make faster diagnoses of diseases-and develop less expensive vaccines.
Through The Ferré/Marquet Vaccine Research Center at Pitzer College, Grill is actively involved in a collaborative research project with the University of Botswana and the Botswana Vaccine Institute to develop low-cost vaccines for developing countries. Grill also works with the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, helping researchers there arrive at faster diagnoses and develop less expensive vaccines for animals.
"We're working on vaccines, but there are so many diseases in Africa that could be cured if you can just identify them quickly enough," says Grill, who was recently appointed dean of research at KGI.
"There's a disease called East Coast fever that kills 1.2 million cattle every year in Africa and is complex to vaccinate against," Grill explains. "If the disease is diagnosed early it could be eradicated in Africa as it has been in the Western world."
Of course, Grill is also doing plenty of research stateside at KGI-and his primary goal remains the same: to make effective vaccines that are less costly so that they can be used in developing countries.
"We are also working on methods to make new vaccines in shorter times," Grill says. "Since we would like to get our vaccines out more quickly, we are focusing on zoonotic diseases, which infect both animals and humans. In this way, we can make vaccines that can be tested and used in animals prior to getting approval for use in humans. The diseases that we are working on at KGI are anthrax and rabies."
Grill has Vaccine Research Center history to build on that KGI students could help him take his research to the next level. The technology that the Vaccine Research Center will use is based on using a common plant virus-the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV)-that doesn't cause disease in non-plant species. This virus is only infectious for a few solanaceous plant species and is easily contained and controlled when grown in outdoor environments, making the technology safe for use around the world. Grill has been involved with developing TMV as a protein and peptide production system for the last 20 years.
"Coming in to KGI as a research professor and having graduate students working with me in the lab is helping drive forward progress both on vaccines and on diagnostics," says Grill, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of California in Riverside.
As evidence of this research boost, Grill points to the work he's doing with KGI Ph.D. student Ryan McComb making subunit vaccines to treat rabies. The anthrax vaccine is joint work with KGI's own Dr. Mikhail Martchenko. Also, in collaboration with Dr. Martchenko, MBS student Liz Henderson started research to develop a vaccine against the Candida albicans pathogen. According to Grill, being able to make subunit vaccines in a less costly and more rapid way is an endeavor that will lead to more and safer vaccine products in the future.
"Developing vaccines is where my heart is right now," Grill says. "I love to teach but I still want to do things that change the world."