A Model Solution

Karen Norris translates research into finding lifesaving answers for global problems

Karen Norris

Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Immunology and Translational Research

Department of Infectious Diseases

College of Veterinary Medicine

Written by Leigh Beeson

Published 11.14.17

Healthy people don’t get pneumocystis pneumonia.

But in the 1980s, the opportunistic fungus was killing seemingly healthy young men. First the fatigue would hit them. A constant cough. Then fever and chills. Finally, they'd begin having a hard time breathing. The disease was an unstoppable killer.

No one could figure out why.

“It caught the medical community off guard,” says Karen Norris, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Immunology and Translational Biomedicine. “It was what heralded the beginning of the HIV epidemic: They were getting pneumocystis pneumonia, or PCP, which was typically a very rare disease.”

Norris was focused on tropical disease research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Research Institute in the mid- to late-’80s. But a decade later, colleagues convinced her to start working on HIV and the normally rare form of pneumonia killing patients by the thousands.

It was Norris’ lab that developed the animal model of AIDS-associated PCP, which enables researchers to study the effects of the disease and how it progresses. Using the model, Norris also found that Pneumocystis infection is a co-factor in developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition that is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Norris’ work led to the creation of a vaccine to prevent PCP in a pre-clinical animal model, a promising sign for future use in people with HIV, those undergoing chemotherapy, or anyone taking drugs that suppress or impact the immune system.

“The science behind the vaccine works,” Norris says. The next step is to move it into clinical trials, something she is hopeful will happen soon.

The models have also helped Norris’ lab develop a better understanding of the accelerated aging process that seems to accompany HIV infection.

“HIV patients now who are treated with antiviral therapies are living longer and doing better, but they’re susceptible to chronic diseases that were not apparent at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Norris says. “We’re finding that HIV-infected individuals develop diseases that are typically associated with old age, like emphysema, cardiovascular disease and dementia.”

Her lab is investigating how the state of chronic immune activation caused by HIV infection may affect heart and lung functioning, potentially contributing to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pulmonary hypertension. The studies should lead to a better understanding of how to target treatments to guard against cardiopulmonary diseases.

The average person is affected every single day by the successes of research that started at the university level.

Karen Norris GRA Eminent Scholar in Immunology and Translational Research, College of Veterinary Medicine

Norris’ arrival at the university in 2016 added to Georgia’s growing Center for Vaccines and Immunology, enabling other scientists to benefit from her knowledge and assistance in getting their drugs and treatments to the clinical trial phase.

“The average person is affected every single day by the successes of research that started at the university level,” Norris says. “Basic questions that might not seem relevant: How does that virus grow? Are there different strains of that virus? Those questions about how pathogens work have to be answered before we can create a vaccine or treatment.”

And those are just some of the problems Norris and her collaborators are intent on solving.

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