When BioNews Texas CEO & Publisher Chris Comish filed his press notes after attending this year’s Vaccine Biotechnology Conference at the Texas Medical Center, he was at a loss for how such an impressive array of researchers and biotech professionals — set at a conference held in what Mr. Comish can only describe as the “Disney World” of biotech and life science research in that the place overwhelms the senses — could be accurately covered in a news article. To do the conference, its attendees, and its locale any justice, you’d probably need a series of articles to even come close.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 2nd Annual Vaccine Biotechnology Conference — a conference themed this year on the critical importance of attracting biotech partners into Houston and the vaccinology sphere in Texas — would turn out to be such a success in terms of assembling and rallying the best and brightest that the world of science has to offer in developing next-generation vaccines for the world’s most deadly and neglected infectious diseases. The Conference is just one of many successful projects launched by BCM’s National School of Tropical Medicine led by the inimitable Dr. Peter Hotez — in addition to being a top-notch researcher, he also has an unmatched knack for making things happen in advancing awareness, research, funding and solutions for much-needed vaccines on a global level.
After the Conference and our original reportage on the event, Dr. Hotez suggested that we interview Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, Ph.D, the associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, and the director of the vaccine product development laboratories of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, who along with Dr. Hotez was one of the stand-out organizers of the Vaccine Biotechnology Conference. In an exclusive interview with BioNews Texas, Dr. Bottazzi revealed her path from seeing firsthand the effects of poverty on public health issues to becoming a preeminent researcher in the field of vaccinology developing new tools for the treatment and prevention of such diseases, as well as her passion for bringing business and science together in order to create successful outcomes for millions of people in the world today suffering from the effects of Neglected Tropical Diseases.
Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi: Young Life
Dr. Bottazzi was born in Italy, but is half Honduran, and moved with her family back to Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 1973 when she was still a child. At present, Honduras is a country still struggling to rise out of poverty, develop a more robust economy, and improve conditions for its 8.2 million citizens. During Dr. Bottazzi’s childhood, however, the poor conditions in the country were even more pronounced, especially coming from Italy, which was a much more developed nation.
“I’ve always been very sensitive to my surroundings,” Dr. Bottazzi remarked in the interview, recalling that the conditions she confronted throughout her childhood led her to pursue an education and eventual career in science and research. Unlike some researchers, who often hail from a “science family,” Bottazzi would turn out to be the first scientist in her family, which is otherwise made up of entrepreneurs. Yet, her entrepreneurial background would eventually come to play a significant role in her science career as well.
Like many talented, accomplished researchers, Dr. Bottazzi’s path through academia meanders through a wide range of different disciplines and focuses, each of which have come to help shape and influence the important work she is doing today. Her upbringing and experiences in Honduras led her to earn a degree in microbiology and clinical chemistry in 1989. “In Honduras,” Dr. Bottazzi recalls, “you work directly with patients. A microbiologist is a public health servant as well.” In this way, she had an opportunity to gain a perspective on infectious, communicable diseases through the microscope, but also on the examination table as well.
Pursuing her new focus into researching infectious disease, she immigrated to the United States and earned her Ph.D. in molecular immunology and experimental pathology at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1995. “Because my training was so clinical and hands-on in Honduras, I still had a lot to learn once I got to the U.S.,” Dr. Bottazzi explains. “I lacked some of the basic molecular knowledge and education that I would need going forward.” Her post-doctoral training in cellular biology was completed 1995-2001 at the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania.
From there, Dr. Bottazzi’s education took a unique turn, realizing at that point that she wanted to move away from the basic sciences and get back into applied research. This was an academic crossroads for her — and she even thought of going back to Honduras. In the end, however, she chose to extend her education in a completely different direction, and entered the MBA program at Temple University. (Sitting in a Temple classroom in North Philly with a dozen other MBA students, how many of them could claim to have previously picked up a post-doctoral certificate from the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, just across the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia?)
The Business of Science
While her time at Temple earning her business knowledge from the MBA courses might not make it into very many research biographies, Dr. Bottazzi’s academic pivot toward business ignited her passion for the business side of science. “I’m fascinated with the business side of science,” she explained. “Researchers are at their best when they advocate for and push their own discoveries toward adoption and commercialization.”
On a trip back to Honduras while attempting to complete her stint at Temple, Bottazzi met with some of her previous academic advisers who knew Dr. Hotez. Hotez had made his way to Honduras in the late 90s, as part of his expansive effort to surveil the world’s hotspots for Neglected Tropical Diseases and get a commanding grasp on how he could develop a strategy to tackle the issue on a global level. Dr. Bottazzi had an opportunity to meet Hotez, and the rest is history.
Hotez was likely as impressed with the profile, education, and charismatic passion for her work as we were in our own interview with Dr. Bottazzi, and invited her to George Washington University (Hotez’ base of operations at the time) to give a talk on her ideas and experiences. So often in life, being invited to speak somewhere leads to exciting opportunities: Hotez offered Dr. Bottazzi a spot in his group at GW in 2000, and in 2001, she became an assistant research professor there. Dr. Bottazzi doesn’t regret not completing the MBA Program but was confident that what she learned during the time at Temple shaped how both her business and parasitology experience made her a perfect match for phase one of launching Dr. Hotez’ vision for the new Department of Microbiology and Tropical Medicine at GW, with the notion of how to advance knowledge and understanding for new tools for fighting NTDs.
Over the next ten years, Drs. Hotez and Bottazzi built up the enterprise, with Dr. Bottazzi’s skills in management, operations, financials, and personnel fueling the engine of their efforts. During this first phase, Dr. Bottazzi focused particularly on forging new partnerships and alternative funding for the school, which to this day still forms the basis of the enterprise’s existence.
Move To Texas
After the 10-year growth period of the enterprise’s brand at GW, the School of Tropical Medicine was ready to be launched entering into a new phase and gain more visibility, funding and resources. When Dr. Hotez was approached by BCM to move his operation to Texas, it presented great opportunity, according to Dr. Bottazzi — particularly, having the opportunity to work amid the largest medical center in the U.S. “There’s nowhere else like it in the U.S., where you’re all in one contiguous area. Even Boston and Silicon Valley aren’t the same. The medical center — it’s as large as downtown Los Angeles with 100,000 employees. A key point of attraction.”
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Texas also made sense as a location for further studying Neglected Tropical Diseases. As a state, it has a lot of the poorest communities and NTDs in the U.S.. Since one of Dr. Bottazzi’s main projects is to assist Dr. Hotez in developing new programs, setting a win-win infrastructure by procuring more funding and resources from the developed world, working out of Houston gave their team the opportunity to bring awareness of NTDs in the developed world in an effort to bring further awareness to the global problem.
Dr. Bottazzi also explained that Texas also offered a wealth of other positives for their team as well — ones that we’ve heard articulated by other biotech professionals who have moved their operations to the Lone Star State. For as much as the Texas biotech sector is still only emerging on the world stage, many see the research and innovative coming out of the state’s research institutions and biotech companies as at the avant-garde of biotech growth. Additionally, the state’s central locale gives Bottazzi and Hotez a convenient jumping-off point for national and world travel. Bottazzi even remarked that, “politics seem more bipartisan in Houston.”
Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, of course, made all the difference for the enterprise, making a deep, generous contribution to their efforts. Since their move to Houston, the National School of Tropical Medicine and its vaccine center tripled its lab space, brought in a robust faculty of highly-talented, diverse researchers, and state-of-the-art research equipment.
Addressing NTDs in Texas
One of the most difficult tasks that researchers have is taking their research and findings and turning them into measurable, workable solutions. For Dr. Bottazzi, however, this is exactly where her strengths lie. Now into the second phase of her advocacy for vaccine development, she is focused on how the groundbreaking research underway in Texas can be converted into real-life solutions that will have a positive, quantitative impact on the people who need it most.
An overarching theme at the Vaccine Biotechnology Conference, and one that Bottazzi underscored, is the need for more biotech companies to get involved in converting research into long-term, commercialized solutions for the treatment of infectious disease. The other critical element is sustained funding.
Dr. Bottazzi candidly noted that many investors and philanthropists often make their funding decisions based on what kind of return they can expect. While a return on investment is an important consideration, she is also seeking to exert financiers to be more altruistic in their funding and gifting, since the threat of NTDs is a worldwide problem that affects not only forgotten, developing cultures, but the United States as well.
This last point appears to be Dr. Bottazzi’s focus, as she works to sustain the school’s operations through a standard, sufficient amount of funding sources, as well as forging more key partnerships with private and public organizations. She also envisions a state-funded organization akin to CPRIT that could be used to incubate and propel much-needed research for global health problems in the future.
Much like cancer, NTDs are a major health factor in the world today. But unlike cancer, NTDs continue to go unrecognized by the mainstream. Considering Texas’ key role in researching and battling NTDs, the state is fortunate to have Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi and her unique skill set as the Texas biotech and life sciences sectors continue to grow in their focus on vaccine research and development.