Boettcher Scholar Margaret Liu a pioneer of DNA vaccine research

Boettcher Scholar Margaret Liu a pioneer of DNA vaccine research

Senior advisor in vaccinology at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. President of the International Society for Vaccines. Foreign adjunct professor, Karolinska Institutet. Executive vice-chair, International Vaccine Institute. Advisor to the World Health Organization.

Margaret Liu has held these titles at various points in her world-renowned and varied career in the fields of gene therapy, vaccines, immunotherapy and global health. One title, however, has remained constant throughout: Boettcher Scholar. “It changed the trajectory of what I’ve done. My life and career would have been very different without it,” Margaret said of the Boettcher Scholarship.

A 1973 scholar, Margaret was raised in Durango. After her father passed away suddenly, Margaret’s mother, an academic and Chinese immigrant, specifically relocated to the small town where she could raise her three young children with the benefits of a small supportive community and college.

Though her older sister attended an Ivy League school, it was the Boettcher Scholarship that convinced Margaret to turn down offers from Yale and Princeton to attend Colorado College, a decision for which Margaret and her family are incredibly grateful (her younger brother Paul was also a Boettcher Scholar in 1977).

At Colorado College, Margaret began to view the world and her passions through an interdisciplinary lens and students were encouraged to excel in disparate arenas. For example, she and fellow chemistry majors formed a woodwind quintet they dubbed the “Ketones” (or “Keytones”).  Her exposure to biochemistry and immunology helped her decide to attend Harvard Medical School, which she entered after furthering her piano studies at a conservatory in Paris on a Rotary scholarship.

Margaret’s interdisciplinary pursuits continued through medical school, as well as during her internship, residency and clinical fellowship in endocrinology and metabolism at Massachusetts General Hospital. While primarily interested in research she also found that training in clinical medicine provided important insights for her future research efforts. “My whole career has had a dual perspective, the interface of two fields – medicine helping patients and research to find new preventions and therapies,” she said.

Margaret’s first field-changing research came while a visiting scientist at MIT, where her pioneering research in bi-specific antibodies for use as cancer therapeutics was published in Science. The first bi-specific antibody treatment for human cancer was approved by the FDA in 2014, 29 years after her seminal paper was published.

Soon after, at the pharmaceutical company Merck, Margaret led a team of scientists who demonstrated that the in vivo injection of plasmid DNA could result in the successful production of immune responses that could protect in pre-clinical studies against different strains of influenza. This opened the field for ongoing efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine and other future vaccines that could benefit from both cellular and antibody immunity (such as tuberculosis, HIV, and cancer immunotherapy).

The discovery was so significant for current research efforts, that Discover magazine named Margaret one of its “50 Most Important Women Scientists” in 2002, and her students and colleagues began calling her “The mother of DNA vaccines.” It also resulted in her being invited by the Nobel Committee to give a lecture at the Karolinska Institutet (the Swedish medical university that selects the Nobel Prize winners in Medicine and Physiology); she received an honorary Doctor of Medicine degree from the Karolinska in 2017.

After leading vaccine and gene therapy research at two companies and filing various patents, Margaret was asked to be the senior advisor in vaccinology for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This, as well as helping establish the World Health Organization’s Initiative for Vaccine Research enabled her to expand from developing technologies for global vaccines to the broader arena of global health.

Today, Margaret splits her time between advising companies on strategies and technologies for developing vaccines for diseases and therapies for cancer, working with international health organizations and boards, and advising researchers and students as an adjunct professor at both the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and the University of California, San Francisco. Helping train the next generation of scientists and physicians is a particular joy, as it reminds her of how so many professors awakened her love of science and inspired her. And she is grateful to the Boettcher Foundation for helping her walk the path from small-town girl to international scientist.

“Always be open to new pathways, to making this world better in terms of social equality for people here and now. To live that out is my calling.”

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