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Dr Yoshihiro Kawaoka

Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka was educated in Japan, receiving his DVM in 1978 from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery and his Ph.D. in 1983 from Hokkaido University.  He then moved from Japan to Memphis, Tennessee, where he began a postdoctoral fellowship in influenza virology under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Webster at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. While at St. Jude, Dr. Kawaoka established an independent program to address such fundamental questions in influenza virology as: how do influenza viruses cause disease; why are certain types of influenza viruses found in humans while other types are found only in birds; and how do influenza viruses change over time.  These studies led Dr. Kawaoka to identify a difference between viruses that kill birds and those that do not.  He then demonstrated the significance of this difference by converting deadly bird flu viruses to milder, non-lethal forms.  This information is now used by the USDA and Organisation Mondiale de la Santé Animale (World Organisation for Animal Health) as a criterion for rapidly identifying lethal and non-lethal bird flu viruses and to produce vaccine strains for H5N1 viruses.

During his tenure at St. Jude, Dr. Kawaoka ultimately achieved the status of Full Member (professor).  He later assumed a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  At UW, Dr. Kawaoka continued to study fundamental concepts in influenza virology.   He established reverse genetics, which allows the generation of ‘designer’ influenza viruses.  This technology – coupled with knowledge established by Dr. Kawaoka regarding the attenuation of deadly influenza viruses – was exploited in the development of candidate H5N1 influenza virus vaccines, which were proven efficacious in clinical trials.  Dr. Kawaoka has also employed reverse genetics in basic research.  Using this technology, he identified a change in a single gene that is critical for bird flu viruses to cause severe disease in mammals. Dr. Kawaoka has also undertaken the study of the 1918 Spanish flu virus, which killed over 40 million people around the close of World War I.  Information uncovered by Dr. Kawaoka is used globally by public health agencies as they undertake the enormous task of influenza pandemic planning.

In addition to his work with influenza virus, Dr. Kawaoka also studies Ebola virus. Because of its extreme virulence, laboratories designated as biosafety level 4 (BSL4), the highest containment environment possible, were required to carry out experiments with Ebola virus.  This requirement severely hampered the progress of research with this virus, as few such facilities exist worldwide.  Dr. Kawaoka therefore established several systems that allowed the analyses of Ebola virus under nonBSL4 conditions. These systems are now widely used in many laboratories, contributing to the recent advances in of Ebola virus research.

Dr. Kawaoka has made significant scientific contribution to our understanding of two highly lethal pathogens, influenza and Ebola viruses.  In recognition of his work, in 2006, Dr. Kawaoka was awarded the prestigious Robert Koch Award for his innovative research in the field of influenza virology.