UTSA's Interim Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise Bernard Arulanandam.
Bernard Arulanandam is UTSA's Interim Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Curiosity has driven Bernard Arulanandam’s career. For the last 17 years, he has conducted innovative research in vaccine development at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he is a professor in bioscience and the university’s interim vice president for research, economic development, and knowledge enterprise.

The National Academy of Inventors recently named Arulanandam a fellow, the highest professional distinction awarded solely to academic inventors. The organization recognizes such inventors who create and facilitate outstanding inventions that tangibly impact quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society.

He previously served as the director of the UTSA South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, which focuses on the origin and development of emerging and bio threat-related diseases, and was instrumental in establishing the UTSA Center of Excellence in Infection Genomics, which supports microbiology research, teaching, and outreach activities aligned with the priorities of the U.S. Army.

Arulanandam is the third UTSA faculty member inducted into the National Academy of Inventors. University President Taylor Eighmy was selected as a fellow in 2013, and David Akopian, associate dean of research at the College of Engineering, in 2016. There are 912 fellows worldwide.

The Rivard Report sat down with Arulanandam to discuss progress being made toward developing vaccines to protect against diseases such as Chlamydia and rabbit fever, and what vaccines might be available in the near future to combat infections. 

RR: When it comes to vaccine development, how did you decide which infections and diseases were important to focus on?

Arulanandam: A great deal of invention is born out of need, and that is true for vaccine development as well. In my laboratory, we are looking into developing vaccines against Chlamydia, which is the leading bacterial sexually transmitted infection worldwide. It often goes undiagnosed because people do not always have symptoms, which can lead to other diseases and damage the reproductive system in women. With it on the rise, we need to come up with better ways to combat the infection. The vaccine is similar to the one for human papilloma virus (HPV), aimed at teens to early adults as a preventative measure and included within vaccine recommendations.

The pathogen Acinetobacter baumannii, considered most difficult multi-drug-resistant organism, is a wound infection and common in some of our servicemen returning from the Middle East, affecting their gastrointestinal tract. We became interested in how and why it developed there, and how it disseminates to cause sepsis. If we can find any common factors among the pathogens, we will further our understanding of what is involved in the infection process. Just as much as we are working to find the answer to what we are looking for, we are also looking for whatever makes itself apparent, because the point is to advance the research. The more we understand what causes something, the more we can create new and improve old methods of vaccination and treatment.

RR: There is a lot of pushback against vaccines throughout the world. Is that something that has any impact on your work?

Arulanandam: The two major scientific breakthroughs that have increased the human lifespan are the discovery of antibiotics and the development of vaccines. That is an empirical fact.

People need to understand the value of vaccination, which will take people like me talking about the positive impact they have on public health. We also need to continue to make breakthroughs to further knowledge and understanding so there is less and less gray area surrounding their effectiveness. Vaccines were developed to improve public health, and a lot of them were identified due to wanting to help children achieve better levels of health, which improves society overall.

Funding for population health research comes from many sources, including the government, private funders, and foundations, [and] there would likely be no moment where anti-vaccination rhetoric would have any impact on research and development. In this field, even if a vaccine is not created, or a funding source wants you to look at something very specific, we look at it all as an opportunity to move the field forward by gaining knowledge. We need to do a better job about informing the public so that they trust what we know, and train the next generation of student researchers very well, so they can continue this work.

RR: What do we have to look forward to in the future in terms of available vaccines and breakthroughs?

Arulanandam: There are quite a few vaccines under development. One is a much better vaccine for tuberculosis, because the one we have right now is not that effective. A lot of the major developments will be in improving what we already have. A vaccine against HIV has been worked on for a long time and has been progressing as researchers refine their knowledge and develop different strategies.

There is research being done on vaccinations against Lyme disease, which is rampant is some areas and can lead to a lot of complications throughout the life span. Another question we are asking is can we come up with a fungal vaccine for common fungal infections that can be difficult to treat. We are trying to do these, do them right, and have them come to the market so that they can help improve quality of life.

RR: What does it take to become an inventor?

Arulanandam: It all starts with being curious. Curiosity is the trait that most all inventors have, no matter what field. It’s what makes us tick, and it is the basis for all discovery. Sometimes discovery can happen serendipitously, and you find something you weren’t looking for just because you asked questions. Training and guidance are necessary, but curiosity is what will keep you interested and asking questions.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.