Man on a Mission: James Voss
by Danielle Younge-Ullman ’90
Posted February 3, 2012
HTS alumni know that hard work gets noticed, and in the world of scientific research, “notice” doesn’t get much more noteworthy than the journal Nature – think Rolling Stone for scientists. To have one’s work featured there is big. To have it on the cover is huge. When the research in question is from one’s PhD work, this is an even more remarkable accomplishment.
All of this has happened to HTS alumnus James Voss (’94), whose PhD work was on the cover of Nature on December 2, 2010. And hot on the heels of the Nature article came an offer for a dream job at the Scripps Research Institute of San Diego. James accepted, and has now joined forces with a team of researchers on the hunt for an HIV vaccine that could save tens of millions of lives.
James’s career in science began at HTS and culminated in a four-year PhD at the Institut Pasteur (Department of Virology) in Paris, where his research involved using X-ray crystallography to “solve the atomic resolution structure of the envelope glycoprotein complex coating the surface of all alphaviruses.”
James explains: “This particular project was a high priority for the French, who recently dealt with an epidemic outbreak of Chikungunya virus (an alphavirus causing symptoms similar to dengue fever), which infected over 250,000 people in Réunion Island off the southeast coast of Africa in 2006.” The subsequent outbreaks of the same virus in other parts of the world, and the importance of preventing these kinds of viruses in the future, led to worldwide interest and the article in Nature.
“My current boss at the Scripps Institute read the article and thought that my skills and background were perfectly suited for the kind of work he wanted to do making an HIV vaccine. I was excited about this opportunity because of the global impact of HIV. Approximately 35 million people are currently infected by HIV, which is about the population of Canada. While antiretroviral medications have greatly improved and can increase the life expectancy of someone living with HIV from about 10 years to about 25 years, these medications must be taken daily and have a substantial price tag and various negative side effects. But an HIV vaccine does not yet exist, for good reason.”
The reason, from a layperson’s perspective, is that the HIV virus can evolve so rapidly that it can escape, or evade most neutralizing antibodies found in the body, and there are, therefore, many strains of the virus – too many to keep up with. Now, however, antibodies have been discovered which have the ability to broadly neutralize many different strains of the virus. However, these antibodies are rarely found in a “natural infection.” James and the rest of his team are therefore working on an engineered version of a complex that can “induce these kinds of broadly neutralizing antibodies to a much higher degree than the natural complex.” And this complex would then help in the formation of a vaccine.
Like many HTS students, James had a well-rounded student life, enjoying the challenge of visual arts and theatrical productions while simultaneously zeroing in on the sciences as his chief area of interest. He credits teacher Dave Steeper, in particular, with inspiring his interest in biology.
“HTS had an important impact on my life and the choices I made for my future,” says James. “For me, it was the teachers who sparked an interest in the subjects they taught, and in life in general. They had healthy attitudes and priorities, and poured themselves into their students, genuinely caring about our lives. When this passion is fostered and combined with learning and dedication, it turns into talent. It was also the other students whose creativity and excitement for life helped to shape me.”
From HTS, James went on to the University of Western Ontario for his undergrad, then to the University of Alberta for a master’s in biochemistry. After that he worked in a lab at the University of Toronto for a year, while deciding where to focus his energy in the future.
“I spent some time thinking about how I could apply this knowledge and training to something that could have a real, positive impact for people. I decided to do a PhD at the Institut Pasteur, working on viral antigenic glycoprotein structures. These proteins and their evolution hold the keys to phenomena like the emergence of pandemic influenza, serious forms of dengue fever and the ability of HIV to evade and overwhelm the human immune system to kill infected people.”
The results of this current line of research – whether the engineered antibodies help to produce a working vaccine – will take time: two to four years, according to James. In the meantime, whenever he isn’t in the lab, he’s getting to know the extra-friendly inhabitants of San Diego and enjoying the weather.
“The Scripps is in a great location, overlooking Torrey Pines golf course and the Pacific Ocean, with a gliderport close by. I like to go there for lunch sometimes to watch the paragliders take off and land. We’ll see if I miss those cold Canadian winters!”
Hmm… would you?
James comes home for the holidays every year, and attends the HTS Carol Service with his dad, Mr. Voss. He’s always happy to reconnect with HTS friends and can be found on Facebook. In the meantime, for the sake of the millions of people whose lives might be saved, we wish him the very best of luck with his work on the HIV vaccine.