Dr. Ricardo Carrión, Jr. '98 Leads Charge against Bio-threats
By Debby Denehy
Safety comes first in Dr. Carrión's lab where he handles some of the world's most deadly pathogens.
Photo provided courtesy of Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Resarch.
Once a graduate biology student at UIW, Dr. Ricardo Carrión, Jr., now supervises some of the most important research underway to help protect our country. As scientific manager of the maximum containment laboratory at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) in San Antonio, Carrión is busy developing and testing new vaccines and therapies to treat deadly infectious diseases and aid in the fight against bioterrorism agents.
While studying at UIW, Carrión began pursuing an academic path toward medical school but was attracted to molecular biology and soon switched his focus. “I'd always been interested in science,” he explains. “At UIW, I was out in the field investigating parasites that infect rodents of South Texas, and then I started working on molecular biology in the lab. Being able to manipulate genes and conduct tests in the lab was much more appealing to me than running around in the hot Texas sun trying to catch rodents.”
He earned a Bachelor of Science at St. Mary's University in 1993, a Master of Science degree in biology at UIW in 1998, and a doctorate in microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center in San Antonio in 2003. Since receiving his Ph.D., Carrión has been a leading virologist and immunologist and follows what he believes to be his calling: to conduct vital research to help others. In 2005, his research was recognized by the San Antonio Business Journal as he was honored among 40 individuals under the age of 40 in its 2005 “Rising Stars” list.
“Everything changed for me after September 11th, 2001,” he recalls. “I had been working on a bio-defense project for a government sponsor for about a year before 9/11 and had a meeting across the country shortly after that date. The airport was deserted, the plane was empty, and my mom had all our relatives praying the rosary for my safe return. I saw how vulnerable our nation was, and suddenly the importance of developing vaccines and therapies for bio-terror agents became even more apparent.”
Soon, media coverage sparked widespread interest in biohazard research when the dangers of anthrax and other agents used in terrorist activities became a primary topic in the news. The research Carrión has conducted at SFBR has shown that an anthrax antitoxin developed by scientists at the University of Texas at Austin can effectively clear the body of the deadly toxins that anthrax bacteria produce. This is an important finding because, although antibiotics can be used to treat early-stage anthrax infection by killing off the bacteria, there currently is no treatment available to save people in the late stage of infection. This late stage is when patients succumb to the mass quantities of anthrax toxins that accumulate in the body. Carrión is now partnering with Eastern Virginia Medical School and others in helping the federal government understand how the anthrax that was used in the attacks of 2001 was grown.
Dr. Ricardo Carrión, Jr.
Other work underway in SFBR's maximum containment laboratory focuses on the development of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines to help protect against many other potentially deadly diseases brought on by a possible bio-terrorism attack, or by natural means. In fact, Carrión spends his days with some of the planet's most deadly pathogens and threatening microbes. He pulls on an airtight 'spacesuit' and three pairs of gloves to enter the high-security level-4 laboratory to spend a few hours every day experimenting with agents.
Biosafety labs are categorized into four levels - with 1 being the lowest and 4 being the highest - based on the level of danger associated with the diseases investigated and the resulting safety measures employed in the laboratory. The SFBR operates the nation's only privately owned level-4 lab and one of only four such labs operating in the U.S. Microbes studied in these labs are those agents for which there are no effective vaccines or treatments. An example of a level-4 agent is Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever virus that has a 90-percent mortality rate and for which there is no vaccine or drug therapy available to prevent or treat infection.
“Ricardo is considered by his peers to be one of the best scientists running these labs,” said his supervisor and colleague Dr. Jean L. Patterson, chair of the department of virology and immunology at SFBR. Carrión met Patterson while at the UT Health Science Center studying a virus that infected the same parasite he had previously studied for his thesis.
“Although Ricardo may be in the early years of his career,” Patterson continued,” he is already making his mark. He has authored or coauthored numerous scientific publications in journals reviewed by his peers, and he has received research funding from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and several corporate sponsors.”
“To date, two significant accomplishments in my career include providing the efficacy testing for an anthrax antitoxin and testing a potential vaccine for Lassa hemorrhagic fever,” said Carrión. “An equally lethal disease, Lassa hemorrhagic fever is prevalent in West Africa. It infects over 300,000 people annually and is considered to be a potential bio-terror weapon. Through collaboration with investigators from the University of Maryland, our research team has shown that an experimental Lassa fever vaccine is 100-percent effective against a lethal Lassa virus challenge.”
Today, under a Department of Defense contract, he studies the surface survival kinetics of viruses. Carrión is trying to determine how long Ebola and other level-4 agents can survive on the surface of military vehicles and artillery to learn how to decontaminate them if needed.
In the next few months, he plans to join the National Institutes of Health in studies to better understand the most virulent forms of influenza virus, including avian influenza. “I am certainly grateful for being involved in such important research so early in my career,” Carrión adds.
“To say the least, Dr. Carrión is a very busy man,” said Patterson. “His ability to handle multiple projects simultaneously amazes everyone who knows him. I personally believe he is a tribute to San Antonio's science community.”
Although this type of work is Carrión's top priority these days, his longer range goal is to share what he knows with others through a later career in teaching. “I'm from a family of teachers, so it's in my blood,” he says. “I think it is everyone's responsibility to pass on what they know to others. Eventually I would love to have a lab full of graduate students learning about science. I would consider myself fortunate if I could help just one person love science in the same way others have helped me.”
In the mean time, he enjoys his research work and spare time with his wife of six years, Tricia '97. He met Tricia at UIW while she was completing her bachelor of science in nursing. “I stay involved in my community, most significantly, in service to my parish community in South San Antonio,” he says. “I also try to encourage young people to pursue a career in science by meeting with college students to discuss my research and science careers in general. When my schedule permits, I also volunteer to judge local science fairs. I am fortunate to not only have a career that I enjoy but that also allows me to make an impact on the nation's efforts in bio-defense.”
Carrión is the recipient of numerous awards from the scientific community and a frequent guest lecturer. He is proud of his community and the education he received at UIW, which he credits for helping him forge an impressive career path dedicated to research designed to help protect our nation.