William Fischer, assistant professor in division of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine in the UNC Department of Medicine, and Helen Lazear, assistant professor in the UNC Department of Microbiology and Immunology, were named recipients of this year’s Jefferson-Pilot Fellowship in Academic Medicine for their research and clinical care related to infectious diseases, such as Ebola and Zika viruses.
As a result of a growing expertise in critical care medicine and severe viral pathogens prior to joining the UNC School of Medicine and since, Dr. Fischer was recruited to work with the World Health Organization to assist with simultaneous outbreaks of influenza, MERS, and Ebola. The relatively small size of previous outbreaks, the austere environments in which they commonly occur, and the fear that is associated with Ebola have limited the understanding of the clinical course and treatment of patients with Ebola. Dr. Fischer documented his work in Africa here.
In the seven years he has been at UNC, Dr. Fischer has published more than 40 manuscripts and served as a lead writer for the WHO optimized supportive care protocol for Ebola, has earned numerous awards and research grants, and is recognized as a national and international expert on Ebola virus disease, Lassa Fever, and Influenza. He is currently working with the WHO on COVID-19 and is treating patients in the ICU at the UNC Medical Center. He is a member of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Lazear started her research program at UNC in the fall of 2015, just as the Zika virus epidemic was spreading throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. As a postdoctoral fellow, her research had focused on innate immune mechanisms that control West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne flavivirus related to Zika virus. She had set out to develop cell culture and animal model systems for flaviviruses she thought were likely candidates for emergence, including Usutu virus and Zika virus. This preparedness made her one of the few researchers with the tools and expertise to study Zika virus in the earliest stages of the epidemic and allowed her quickly to become a leader in the field.
The mouse pathogenesis model Dr. Lazear developed as a postdoc is now widely used to study Zika virus pathogenic mechanisms and to evaluate candidate vaccines and antivirals. Since then, in her lab at UNC, she has collaborated with fellow UNC researchers Ralph Baric, Mark Heise, and Aravinda de Silva, Departments of Epidemiology, Genetics, and Microbiology and Immunology, to study viral and host mechanisms that control flavivirus pathogenesis. Her research group has studied how changes in the envelope protein among Zika virus strains impact viral pathogenesis and immune mechanisms that control Zika virus sexual transmission and congenital infections.
Dr. Lazear’s work has provided important insights into innate immune control of flavivirus pathogenesis and provides a solid foundation for future work on congenital infections, antiviral immunity in the skin, genetic determinants of viral susceptibility, and distinct pathogenic features of mosquito-borne and tick-borne flaviviruses.