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In the weeks leading up to the arrival of COVID-19 in Texas, there was a sense of curiosity and anticipation among the scientists at Texas Biomedical Research Institute. We were curious to understand how the novel virus affected the human body and anticipating having to spring into action to find a defense against its spread. When the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in early 2020, we all put down our research to focus our energy on this new pathogen. It felt like we were racing against time.

Every day, including weekends, I would drive to work, thinking this is what we are trained for. I worked in biocontainment safety level-3 labs, which are for pathogens that do not have a vaccine or treatment. I would be in the lab from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, with limited contact with the outside world. In order to do my work, I had to suit up in a full-body suit, two sets of gloves, booties, hair net and a powered air-purifying, full-face respirator. All of our work took place in biosafety hoods with layers of safety protocols that needed to be followed. It was physically challenging not to eat, drink or use the restroom for extended periods of time, but we knew how important the work was. 

After following all the proper decontamination procedures at the end of the day, I would go home and care for my family. It was challenging as a mother and a scientist to balance taking care of my 6-year-old daughter and her virtual school with the immense responsibility of conducting critical research.

In those early days, our research was focused on preparing an animal model that could represent humans sick with COVID-19. The animal models then helped perform efficacy trials for vaccines and therapies now being used against this deadly disease, including the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail.

The studies require experts from different fields to work together, including lab scientists, pathologists, veterinarians, research assistants and biosafety personnel. Every person is tasked with a specific part of the study, and there were about 30 to 40 people involved at all levels to get the project completed on schedule. It was a truly humbling feeling to be a part of this mammoth project, a remarkable achievement of teamwork and unrelenting determination of all involved. 

While the pace of research has not slowed, we are able to resume many of our other research projects now. I started at Texas Biomed in 2019 as a post-doctorate fellow to pursue research on two of the world’s leading killers: tuberculosis (TB) and HIV. I got promoted to staff scientist in 2021 and have continued my journey to understand how these two deadly pathogens work together to cause mortality. 

Riti Sharan demonstrates the act of pipetting, something that she does a lot of in controlled laboratory environments at Texas Biomedical Institute.
Riti Sharan demonstrates the act of pipetting, something that she does frequently in controlled laboratory environments at Texas Biomedical Institute. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Across the world, TB infection rates remain high, causing extensive morbidity and mortality. In addition, coinfection with HIV often reactivates latent TB, exacerbating the problem. Texas has the third-highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. and, while TB occurs less often here, advancement in our understanding of both diseases has the potential to benefit our neighbors along with millions of others.

I am the lead on three studies investigating anti-viral and anti-bacterial therapies for TB/HIV coinfection. We are also trying to develop vaccines against both diseases. My research involves studying how tuberculosis and HIV diseases impact each other inside the body and how the TB bacterium and HIV virus interact to make the situation worse. Once I have knowledge of mechanisms at work both genetically and in the immune system, I am able to study specific biological or genetic markers that can then be targeted for future vaccines or therapeutics. By blocking these biomarkers using synthetic molecules, it is possible to then study if we are able to slow down the disease or prevent one pathogen from having a detrimental effect on the other.  

Along with research, I really enjoy educating school and college students about the significance of biomedical research and sharing my career journey so far. 

I have been intrigued by the human body since my high school biology class. Working with my teachers in the biology lab was fascinating, especially learning about how all the organs function and the complex and diverse ways the human body defends itself against pathogens. This fascination led me to pursue a career that has taken me all over the world, from India to Australia, then France and now Texas. 

I studied microbiology and biochemistry at Bangalore University and specialized in microbial pathogenesis for my master’s degree from Panjab University. Then I went on to Central Queensland University in Australia for my doctorate, where I developed a cost-effective technique using copper storage vessels to reduce the incidence of water-borne diseases in developing nations. It was very fulfilling to take my research from bench to the field, providing a real-world solution for a very serious problem.

Riti Sharan works as a staff scientist at Texas Biomedical Research Institute.
Riti Sharan, staff scientist at Texas Biomedical Research Institute Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

During my post-doctoral fellowship at the Pasteur Institute in France, I discovered a brand-new therapeutic target to treat a bacteria associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder in a mouse model, which is now in human clinical trials. While at Pasteur, I had the joy of giving birth to my daughter and took a productive break to spend time raising her. During my maternity break, I continued to publish my research; to pivot the next phase of my career, I won a grant that allowed me to come to the U.S. to study respiratory pathogens at Texas A&M University Health Science Center

There, I led research on a novel technique to image TB bacterium for vaccine research. My extensive training in preclinical small animal models and respiratory pathogens led me to join the lab of Deepak Kaushal at Texas Biomed and the Southwest National Primate Research Center, which is one of only seven such nationally-recognized and supported centers in the country.

At Texas Biomed, I’m able to conduct my research, collaborate with the leaders of the field and grow as a scientist. I am excited to make contributions to improving our understanding of the human body’s response to two leading causes of death in the world and hope that my work will lead to the development of a combined vaccine against them in the years ahead.

Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.