World-Renowned Infectious Disease Expert Is This Week’s Guest on ‘Inside UVA’
Audio: ‘Inside UVA’ with Dr. Bill Petri, Infectious Disease Specialist(17:47)
President Ryan and Dr. Petri discuss the pandemic, research, teaching and more.
President Jim Ryan 0:01
Now you said that twice, where it's the students who make all the discoveries, which just I have to ask you, so what's your job then?
Dr. Bill Petri 0:10
No, no, that's quite true. And we're really what I tried to do is to provide the resources, bring a group of people together that each knows how to do different things, and help them to interact and promote that interaction and then kind of stand out of the way. Research really goes from the bottom up.
President Jim Ryan 0:32
Hi, everyone, I'm Jim Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia and I'd like to welcome all of you to the latest episode of Inside UVA. This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the university, and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is. Today's guest is Dr. Bill Petri, Vice Chair for Research in the UVA Department of Medicine, a chair professor of infectious disease and international health, and the head of the Petri Lab. Bill, it's a real honor to have you here.
Dr. Bill Petri 1:13
Jim, thank you so much for having me, I'm really excited to get a chance to talk with you.
President Jim Ryan 1:18
So you are a world renowned infectious disease expert with over 400 publications and 20 patents. You are the recipient, rightly so, of numerous accolades, including inclusion in multiple medical honor societies, and the Thomas Jefferson Award for Excellence in Scholarship, which is the highest award given to UVA faculty. You have made significant contributions to global health, which has meant traveling the globe in order to do your research. You've been a mentor to many, you are a husband and proud father of five children, you play the trombone, and you run marathons. So my first quick question is, how in the world do you do all of this?
Dr. Bill Petri 2:01
Everything is fun. And so when you get to work with UVA students, discover new things, go running, raise a family in a beautiful community like Charlottesville, it all works.
President Jim Ryan 2:16
Well, I think you may be superhuman too, which probably helps. So I'm curious to go back to the beginning. I mean, you have had a truly remarkable career. How did you get started? And how did you get interested in the field of research that you've been pursuing for decades now?
Dr. Bill Petri 2:35
I think I've always wanted to be a scientist; like I was in elementary school during the race to the moon and my godfather was actually the press officer for NASA. So I got to meet Scott Carpenter. And my father was a chemical engineer. And so I always knew I wanted to be a scientist. And then there was a wonderful program at NIH that put high school students into the labs at NIH. And my older sister did that, then I did it, my younger sister did that. And all three of us now are physician scientists. And so we learned that we both wanted to be doctors and care for people, and also do science. And so it was really a remarkable opportunity for high school students.
President Jim Ryan 3:18
So where did you grow up? Did you grew up near NIH?
Dr. Bill Petri 3:21
Yeah, we grew up in DC. Yeah, yeah. So just in the Chevy Chase part of Washington.
President Jim Ryan 3:27
And then how about your particular fields? I mean, you could have studied any number of things. How did you get interested in the topics that you study?
Dr. Bill Petri 3:37
Well, in medical school, one of my professors was Dick Grant, who's still here on faculty. And Dick lectured as his first year medical students about how important infectious diseases were in low and middle income countries. And I was sold on the spot, and he's still doing doing what he told us about 40 years ago.
President Jim Ryan 4:00
And it's been an interesting field to be in lately.
Dr. Bill Petri 4:03
For sure, yeah. It's been very fulfilling to be able to try to contribute something back with a pandemic.
President Jim Ryan 4:10
Yeah, I want to come back to that. But first I'm curious, a lot of folks I've had on this podcast, I've asked them what led them to UVA. I want to ask you a slightly different question, I mean you have spent, essentially your entire professional career here and have been a professor for more than three decades. What's kept you here?
Dr. Bill Petri 4:33
Jim, it's the students. And I don't know that people outside of science understand that all of the discoveries that are made are made by students and whether that's UVA undergraduates since our medical schools part of the grounds it's easy for them to work in the lab, graduate students, MD fellows, they're the ones that are making the discoveries and that is like so fun because, you know, I'm learning new things, and at the same time, it's creating careers and building young people's futures and then to be able to follow their success, you know, over again, like over 30 years and see them be their own person in science and medicine.
President Jim Ryan 5:14
And what are you working on in the Petri Lab right now?
Dr. Bill Petri 5:18
Well, we have a big effort on making vaccines. And so that includes work on an intranasal vaccine for COVID 19. We're actually in trials in non-human primates of an amebiasis vaccine, which is the parasite that I first started working on 30 years ago at UVA, and then we're actually working on a vaccine against another parasite that's important in children in low income countries called cryptosporidiosis.
President Jim Ryan 5:47
And your work on COVID, you pivoted a bit to focus on COVID when the pandemic hit? And can you talk a little bit about what that looked like?
Dr. Bill Petri 6:00
Sure. What was clear here, like by February of 2020, was the COVID was coming to Charlottesville, it was inevitable. And we were able to set up a study before the first patient ever arrived at UVA Hospital, where we could collect every discarded clinical sample from a COVID patient. And when we get like your blood drawn for a complete blood count, for example, there's always a little bit leftover. And so those discarded samples, we established a bio repository so we could look at how is the immune response different in someone who does well during their hospitalization or who goes on and requires mechanical ventilation. And that was a technician in my lab, Mary Young, who came in every day during the lockdown and went over to the clinical lab and collected these discarded samples. And then, Allie Donlin, at the time, was a graduate student, she was studying another infectious disease with me. And she really courageously dropped what she was doing to work on COVID-19, including working with Barbara Mann and our biosafety level three lab at UVA with a live virus in a mouse model before there was a vaccine. So it was like, you know, a very encouraging time where people really stepping forward to try to make a difference.
President Jim Ryan 7:25
And how unusual is it to see a vaccine developed as quickly as the vaccine for COVID-19 was developed. I mean, you had mentioned that you're working on a vaccine to address a disease that you've been studying for 30 years. I gather, the timeframe here was pretty remarkable.
Dr. Bill Petri 7:51
It's incredibly. I literally am on year 30 of developing an amoebiasis vaccine, which is not unusual. You know, the pace of scientific discovery, and the contribution of science to COVID-19 is something I hope they will all remember 10-20 years from now, you know, that's everyone's investment in supporting research. This is not overnight, but it's 20 years of research on Coronavirus came into play. Even from the original SARS epidemic in 2000, there were things learned about that spike glycoprotein that went into the design of the mRNA vaccines.
President Jim Ryan 8:31
And looking into your crystal ball. You know, we are at least locally, there's a lot of variation across the country and across the globe, obviously. But it looks like we're on the back end of the omicron varia nt. What do you see ahead?
Dr. Bill Petri 8:51
We're going to be at the highest level of immunity in the United States ever, because there's 250 million people who have been vaccinated in the US. 90 million have had COVID-19, unfortunately. And so you add those two numbers together, that's almost everybody in the US has either been exposed or vaccinated. And I think the unknown is like, how long will that immunity last? And will a new variant arise? And, you know, I think there's always the worry of a new variant because it only takes one person for a new variant, you know. The Omicron , as you know, was one person who is chronically infected from 2020 until last November, someone who was immunocompromised that couldn't clear the virus. The same thing with the Alpha variant from the UK was a single individual. So I think that that's always a risk. But I think that we're in for a very good period of time and as we get into the spring just because of the very high levels of immunity.
President Jim Ryan 9:47
Right, right. So let me shift gears a little bit. You talked about the different students who work in your lab and I wonder if this is related to the NIH grants that you've received, the T-32 grants, which you've been involved in for quite some time. And I wonder if you could describe the programs supported by those grants.
Dr. Bill Petri 10:11
Sure thing. So a T-32 is a grant from the NIH that supports training students and fellows, in this case in infectious disease. And the grant that I've been leading since 1996, was actually founded 50 years ago by Jerry Mandell, who was the original head of infectious diseases at UVA, and is really kind of the father of this clinical specialty of infectious disease. And that was really nice, because I didn't have a cold start, I was just like building on something that was already going very well. And the unusual thing about this training program from NIH, or T-32, is that we are training side by side physicians with graduate students. And so we'll have like a research in progress, where a graduate student will present the research and then a physician fellow will or we'll have a journal club. And so that's unusual. And I think that that's really important, because each discipline brings something different to science, that the graduate students are experts in the approaches and understanding mechanisms of disease, the physicians understand, like, need for new knowledge for patients, we don't know like the right thing to do. And so you bring them together, to me that's, that's what drives me, that's what's so rewarding is seeing that work.
President Jim Ryan 11:32
And is that unusual to see that kind of collaboration?
Dr. Bill Petri 11:37
It is, unfortunately, and you know, it's one of the nice things about UVA is that this is a very close knit collaborative community, in research. You know, because lab per lab, we're just as good as any place in the US or in the world for that matter. But we're smaller, and we're close together. And so it's easy like to have students learn new techniques in a colleagues lab or for me to go and learn something.
President Jim Ryan 12:08
So 20 patents. I'm curious about that. And do you have one that you're most proud of, and or that you could explain to us what it does.
Dr. Bill Petri 12:21
Sure. So one that we just filed, just last week, is by a graduate student, David Tyus. And this is a good example of the way things work. So David is a neuroscience graduate student, came to do his PhD with me, because he thought that there's ways that the nervous system connects with the immune system, and that's going to affect susceptibility to infection. And so one of the infections we study is called C. difficile. And David has discovered that the peripheral nervous system is very important in susceptibility, and he's found a single drug that blocks a receptor of the nervous system that can protect against C. difficile. So, it's a neat thing, because it's very, very basic neuroscience applied to an infectious disease, that potentially leads to a new therapy. And most importantly, this is completely David's idea. And this is typical of what goes on in the labs. It's the students and the fellows that come up with the good ideas and the new discoveries.
President Jim Ryan 13:29
So, Bill, you have the gift of being able to translate scientific concepts into language that the rest of us who are not trained scientists can understand. I can see why the Daily Progress has asked you to respond to readers questions about the pandemic. How hard is it to do, that is to translate scientific research into language that non-experts can understand? And how important is it that someone tries to do this?
Dr. Bill Petri 14:07
In a way it's hard, in a way it's easy. It's easy, in that I can understand the science much better than the average person in Charlottesville. It's hard because like to answer, they're really smart questions that I get from the Daily Progress. And so I've got to go into the literature and really understand it so I'm telling people the right thing. And of course, that's one of the beauties of being a professor is that every time you teach, you're learning more than the person that you're teaching. So that's been, it's been a lot of fun being able to participate in like lay education and you think like that, you know, if one person gets vaccinated as a result of something I've written, then that's a huge success.
President Jim Ryan 14:51
Yeah. So you have deep roots in in Charlottesville, and at UVA, I understand that you met your wife at UVA and were married in the chapel.
Dr. Bill Petri 15:02
Yes, it's one of the best decisions I ever made. So yeah, Mary Ann's like incredibly supportive of everything I do. You know and raising five children in Charlottesville is amazing.
President Jim Ryan 15:17
Last question about running. So, talk to us a little bit about your interest in marathoning, why you run, and what's your favorite spot to run in Charlottesville.
Dr. Bill Petri 15:33
Well, as you know, Jim, we all benefit from having Mark Lorenzoni here and the community of runners that he's built. You know, I've gone through the entire COVID with a dear group of friends. We all run together from Green Berry's. We have coffee socially distance outside, like six days a week, graduate students, professors, community people, and so I can't overestimate like the importance of that friendship through running. And to answer your question, my favorite place is out of Green Springs, which is like, you know, this historically preserved 1000 acres with these beautiful farms and you can run for literally for hours and never pass a car. Just gorgeous out there.
President Jim Ryan 16:19
Right. You know I, of all the places I have run, I have yet to get out to Green Springs. But I'm going to put on my list.
Dr. Bill Petri 16:27
Oh, please. Yeah, let me know when you're there. We'll join you. We won't be able to keep up with you. We'll join you.
President Jim Ryan 16:33
I don't know about that. Well, Dr. Petri, thank you so much for your time. It's really been a total pleasure to speak with you.
Dr. Bill Petri 16:42
Thank you for leading us through COVID-19.
President Jim Ryan 16:46
Well, it was a team effort for sure. Thank you for your help.
Mary Garner McGehee 16:55
Inside UVA is a production of WTJU 91.1 FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. Inside UVA is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Brooke Whitehurst, Matt Weber, and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Monika Shack, Athena Hanny, and McGregor McCance. Our music is Turning to You from Blue Dot Sessions. Listen and subscribe to Inside UVA and Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We'll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the University.
His surname may bring petri dishes to mind, but Dr. Bill Petri comes by his medical expert chops honestly.
“My father was a chemical engineer … so I always knew I wanted to be a scientist,” he tells University of Virginia President Jim Ryan in the latest edition of Ryan’s podcast, “Inside UVA.” “And then there was a wonderful program at [the National Institutes of Health] that put high school students into the labs at NIH. And my older sister did that, then I did it, my younger sister did that. And all three of us now are physician-scientists.”
Ryan launched his podcast last semester as a way to explain how a large public University operates. He has hosted an array of UVA students, faculty, staff and alumni, from celebrated poet and professor Rita Dove to Lauren Kim, the student chair of the University Judiciary Committee.
Readers will likely recognize Petri’s name. A chaired professor of infectious diseases and international health in the School of Medicine and vice chair for research in UVA’s Department of Medicine, he has been in the headlines since March 2020, when the coronavirus spread around the world. Reporters have repeatedly sought out his expertise in infectious diseases.
To learn more about how Petri’s work pivoted when COVID-19 hit – plus his marathon skills and mastery of the trombone – tune in to the latest episode of “Inside UVA,” which can be streamed on most podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.