September is the American Medical Association’s Women in Medicine Month, a time to recognize those who advance the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health. While there are many women physicians and scientists at the University of Arizona who deserve mention, Felicia Goodrum's recent work and resulting grant awards stand out.
In the last year, Goodrum, an associate professor in the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson and a member of the BIO5 Institute, has been awarded four notable grants amounting to more than $13 million. She has established and leveraged partnerships with researchers at the UA and five other universities to fuel her research on human cytomegalovirus, or CMV. In total, her lab is tackling nine different projects, each running off of its own respective grant.
“Science has been a wonderful place for me as a woman,” Goodrum said. “I have always felt welcomed, respected and supported in the field of virology.”
While in graduate school, Goodrum began studying basic cellular processes and “fell in love with the exquisite tools that a virus has evolved to hijack the cell — understanding these interactions between the virus and the cell teaches us so much about cell biology and disease.”
CMV is the perfect specimen for studying complex cell biology and persistent infection. The virus is somewhat of a medical conundrum, and that challenge is what initially captured Goodrum’s attention.
Although most people have never heard of it, more than half of adults by age 40 have been infected with CMV, which is the largest and most complex known virus. Most people with healthy immune systems show no signs or symptoms associated with the virus, but reactivation of CMV from dormancy poses life-threatening disease risks in immunocompromised individuals, including transplant, AIDS and cancer patients.
CMV infection also is the leading cause of infectious disease-related birth defects, affecting 1 in 150 live births in the United States.
Current antivirals can only target the virus after it’s replicating, so doctors are always “playing catch up.” Goodrum wants to change that. Ultimately, Goodrum's research on CMV will allow for novel strategies to be developed to target the virus to prevent its reactivation from latency – a prerequisite to disease.
Goodrum was most recently awarded a $2.6 million research project grant, or R01, from the National Institutes of Health for a multi-investigator collaboration between the UA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Louisiana State University Health Sciences. The study is focused on identifying a new genetic determinate within the virus genome that is required for CMV to reactivate from latency.
The study will be the first to investigate new promoters underlying the molecular mechanisms that drive the virus from its latent state. With this new understanding, researchers will have a novel point of control they can utilize to prevent reactivation of CMV, which will help prevent disease.
Her largest grant awarded in the last year was a $9.9 million program project grant from the NIH's National Institute for General Medical Sciences. The funding is distributed between Goodrum and her colleagues at Oregon Health Science University and Louisiana State University Health Sciences. Together, they are working toward understanding CMV’s progenitor cells and how they establish latency within the blood, specifically in white blood cells, and bone marrow. Ultimately they’re hoping to determine how the virus alters cell signaling, which is important to viral latency and impacts the way cells differentiate to form all the cells circulating in the blood.
Goodrum has received two other grants within the past 12 months, including another R01 grant with fellow BIO5 member Jean Wilson, professor of cellular and molecular medicine with affiliations in the Cancer Biology and Neuroscience Graduate Interdisciplinary programs. The $1.9 million grant, awarded by the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is focused on the virus’s ability to regulate membrane trafficking, which is important for virus replication and how the cell responds to infection and other extracellular stimuli.
Goodrum also recently received the Pew Innovator Award, a $100,000 grant bestowed to her and fellow Pew biomedical scholar alumni, Dr. Benjamin TenOever, professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This grant, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, allows them to combine efforts to advance understanding of how viruses lie dormant to cause persistent infections. They are ultimately seeking to advance new ways of controlling virus replication and the development of a vaccine to protect against CMV.
“Dr. Goodrum has had an amazingly successful year," said Jennifer Barton, director of the UA BIO5 Institute. "Her vision and work has inspired a round of funding that many investigators only dream of. She is willing to put in the work to create collaborative, visionary proposals because of her inherent belief that progress against CMV will spare many who might suffer without prevention or treatment. Dr. Goodrum also realizes that discoveries related to CMV could very well inform minimizing infectious disease-related risk for other viruses as well. Dr. Goodrum has been highly successful at bringing teams across the UA and other institutions together as well as raising awareness that could help tackle the biologic mystery that CMV represents.”
Each one of Goodrum's grants is of a collaborative nature – studies that have stemmed from conversations with colleagues at conferences or questions that have arisen during her research that needed expanded expertise. Goodrum acknowledges that, for some, grant writing can be a cumbersome, exhausting process. However, she says that when she has exciting discoveries and ideas to share and great people to work with the process becomes much easier.
“The key to eradicating CMV lies in understanding latency," Goodrum said. "Discoveries resulting from the hard work of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, undergraduates and technicians in my laboratory have motivated me to apply for grants to further our exciting exploration and discovery. Collectively, these grants will help us provide critical insights into how the virus assimilates into and impacts human biology.”