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Whelan named head of molecular microbiology

Virologist plans to advance microbiology research, public outreach on infectious diseases

by Tamara BhandariJuly 18, 2019

Keith Ketterer

Noted virologist Sean Whelan, PhD, has been named head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and the Marvin A. Brennecke Distinguished Professor of Microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. He studies how deadly viruses such as Ebola and rabies enter cells and multiply, a key step to finding targets for new antiviral drugs. Whelan will take the reins Jan. 1.

Whelan comes from Harvard Medical School, where he is a professor of microbiology and of immunobiology, and head of the virology program. His appointment was announced by David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor.

“I am thrilled to welcome Sean Whelan as the new head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology,” Perlmutter said. “Sean is a superb scientist and a global leader in advancing our understanding of emerging viral infections. His scientific focus has enormous potential for developing new therapies and vaccines and, because viruses cause disease by mimicking our own biology, his work has led, and will continue to lead, to discoveries about the fundamental mechanisms by which our cells function. His scientific leadership will make it possible for our Department of Molecular Microbiology and campuswide microbial research community to continue its long-held and deep legacy at the forefront of the field.”

Whelan succeeds interim head Shabaana Abdul Khader, PhD, and former head Stephen Beverley, PhD, who stepped down in October 2018 after 21 years at the helm. Beverley remains on the faculty, where he continues his research on the parasite Leishmania.

Whelan studies how viruses attach to cells and slip inside, a critical step toward causing disease. Among other accomplishments, he identified the protein that Ebola virus uses to latch onto cells, and the molecular process by which rabies virus invades cells. Whelan also studies how a group of viruses called negative-sense RNA viruses – which includes rabies, measles and influenza viruses – copy themselves inside of cells. Most approved antiviral drugs target the molecular machinery that viruses use to replicate, but such drugs do not exist for negative-sense RNA viruses. Understanding the molecular underpinnings of viral invasion and replication provides new targets for the development of antiviral therapeutics.

Whelan also directs a virology Center for Excellence in Translational Research at Harvard, where researchers are working to find small molecules that prevent viruses from entering or replicating inside cells, and to understand how viruses travel from one part of the cell to another, another key step in infection and a potential target for antivirals.

“I am honored to join the faculty and trainees in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and the broader microbiology and infectious diseases community at Washington University School of Medicine,” Whelan said. “Microbiology remains a key discipline of modern biomedical science. Apart from causing infectious diseases, microbes and microbial communities play critical roles in human health and evolution. The domestication of microbes for medical and scientific purposes promises to have a profound impact on health and medicine. These topics are well-represented throughout the Washington University community, and I view the Department of Molecular Microbiology as providing a central home for the broader Washington University microbiology community.”

An experienced science communicator, Whelan also plans to promote outreach and community engagement between scientists and the public.

“The public perception that infectious diseases were conquered in the 20th century is patently incorrect,” Whelan said. “Infectious disease remains the single leading cause of death globally. Along with the ongoing threat to human health posted by known microbes, we have new microbes emerging and the growing problem of drug resistance. The public is among our best advocates for funding of science, and as head of molecular microbiology I will encourage and support outreach activities at all levels.”

Born in England, Whelan earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Birmingham before completing doctoral studies on poliovirus at the University of Reading. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a brief stint on the faculty there, he joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School in 2002. His many honors and awards include being named a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease and a Hoffmann-LaRoche Investigator in Molecular Virology, as well as receiving a Young Innovator award from Genzyme and a MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2013, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.