Managing in the Midst of Disaster

Immunologist Douglas F. Nixon, M.D., Ph.D., Joins GW’s Efforts to Eradicate HIV/AIDS

It was a blustery December afternoon in 1983 when Douglas F. Nixon, a medical student at Westminster Medical School in London, found himself in the midst of a manmade disaster, one that he had to manage. A car bomb planted by the IRA had exploded at Harrods department store, killing six people and injuring 75. “I was the medical student on duty when the bomb went off,” says Nixon. “It was my responsibility to triage the injured and oversee the situation.” The magnitude of that catastrophe changed Nixon’s outlook on medicine forever.

After medical school, as a junior intern at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, Nixon again found himself in the eye of a disaster. A large influx of young men, all roughly his own age and suffering from an unknown illness, began turning up at the hospital looking for help. “Today, we know this disease as HIV/AIDS,” he says. “But at the time we knew very little about this mysterious illness except that it was spreading among gay men in Los Angeles, New York, and even here in London, but we couldn’t do anything to treat them.” Watching these young men succumb to this devastating disease day in and day out, Nixon felt compelled to take action. He focused his research efforts on the search for treatment options to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS. For the next 25 years, Nixon would immerse himself in clinical research, basic immunology and virology, and molecular biology, including experience in vaccine development, in the effort to eradicate the disease.

Now that quest has brought him to Foggy Bottom, and GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS). Nixon joined the SMHS faculty on October 1 as the Ross Professor of Basic Science Research and chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine (MITM). “I have been impressed by GW and the MITM department’s focus on neglected infectious diseases of poverty for some time,” he says. “I’m thrilled to be a part of this team and help my fellow faculty members further their own research objectives.”

“It’s fantastic to have Dr. Nixon join GW SMHS in a major leadership role,” says Vincent A. Chiappinelli, Ph.D., associate vice president for health affairs and associate dean of SMHS. “As chair of MITM, Dr. Nixon will lead an expansion of our research capacity, not only in HIV/AIDS, but also in other infectious diseases that ravage millions of people throughout the world.”

In his new role, Nixon, who also serves as chair of the NIH AIDS Vaccine Research Subcommittee, will recruit additional faculty to help in the fight to eliminate infectious diseases of poverty and create two centers within MITM: the Research Center for Neglected Diseases of Poverty and the Center for Basic Research for the Cure and Prevention of HIV/AIDS. It’s a role for which Nixon feels he is well prepared.

In the mid-1980s, when Nixon left London for the University of Oxford, where he trained as a pathologist, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had just begun to spread. In England, when physicians train to be pathologists, they must practice microbiology and immunology as well. They are not just trained in forensic pathology, according to Nixon. “I have always been interested in immunology,” he says. “If you think about the way the immune system works, its major role is to help defend us against bugs, and for an immunologist you have to be interested in the bugs and how they interact.”

“There have already been tremendous efforts in D.C., such as the work that Drs. Alan Greenberg and Gary Simon have developed with the District of Columbia Developmental Center for AIDS Research. If we can complement their efforts with greater emphasis on the basic science of HIV/AIDS, then we can put our GW stamp on HIV/AIDS research within the District.”
—­­Douglas Nixon, M.D., Ph.D.

There was a lot of research excitement regarding the new virus. “At Oxford, my medical specialty was as a clinical virologist, meaning I have been trained to diagnose and treat viral infections,” explains Nixon. “In order to work with the virus experimentally, you had to have access to special containment labs.” Oxford’s clinical virology lab had a containment lab, and because Nixon’s supervisors trusted him, he was able to conduct his research in the only containment lab in the city, but outside normal business hours. In the first six months of research in the containment lab, Nixon identified a piece of the human immunodeficiency virus that could stimulate a white blood cell, which was considered to be a substantial finding at the time, leading to an article in the journal Nature with Nixon as lead author.

As an immunologist, Nixon felt that he should focus his efforts on creating a vaccine. He left Oxford and spent the next three years at a biotechnology company in New York. Nixon created a lipopeptide vaccine that was approved by the FDA. “I designed the product from beginning to end, took the Investigational New Drug to the FDA, and designed the clinical trial for it,” he explains, “but unfortunately funding ran out, as often happens with biotech companies.”

Nixon then went on to be a postdoctoral fellow at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, part of the Rockefeller University in New York; was promoted to assistant professor; and then was recruited to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) as associate professor. Most recently, he has served as a professor of medicine and associate chief of the Division of Experimental Medicine at UCSF.

Coming back to the East Coast to take the position at GW was the obvious next step for Nixon. Washington, D.C., has one of the highest prevalence rates of HIV infection in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We need to help emphasize the problem in the context of our political capital city,” he says. “There have already been tremendous efforts in D.C., such as the work that Drs. Alan Greenberg and Gary Simon have developed with the District of Columbia Developmental Center for AIDS Research. If we can complement their efforts with greater emphasis on the basic science of HIV/AIDS, then we can put our GW stamp on HIV/AIDS research within the District.”

Nixon is wasting no time putting MITM’s new lab to use. First on his to-do list, he says, is researching viruses that live in humans. “I want to see if we can mobilize them to fight HIV infection.”


Building Momentum

In 2010, SMHS was awarded $15 million by the National Institutes of Health through the Recovery Act Limited Competition: Extramural Research Facilities Improvement Program (C06), which the university combined with additional funds to build 34,930 square feet of new collaborative laboratory space on the 5th and 6th floors of Ross Hall. Under the leadership of the newly appointed Chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine (MITM) and Ross Professor of Basic Science Research, Douglas F. Nixon, M.D., Ph.D., SMHS will populate these new labs with current and new faculty who will help in the fight to eliminate infectious diseases of poverty. Nixon says the new lab is “an amazing space. I think it will bring together the scientists who work here in a way that individual labs don’t; it will foster new collaborations.” The lab is well equipped with technology that will enable communication and interaction with GW’s global partners.

The Center for the Research of Neglected Infectious Diseases of Poverty will be established and the lab’s state-of-the-art equipment will enable SMHS researchers to identify innovative ways to prevent and treat these debilitating diseases.

“Faculty at MITM work with colleagues in Brazil, Uganda, and Thailand, so we need to be able to communicate with them on the ground, and communication hubs in the new MITM space will allow us to do that,” adds Nixon.

The new labs will provide space in Ross Hall to support GW’s growing biotechnology capacity through increased efficiencies, creating more collaborative learning spaces for students, laboratory personnel, and faculty.

A sleek, glass and steel emergency-egress exterior stairway was constructed to meet code regulations, provide better access inside Ross Hall, and serve as an additional route out of the building. Upgrades to the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems have also been completed as part of the renovation.


View this story in GW Medicine + Health