Summary of my academic career 

I have been conducting biomedical research since 1980 as an independent scientist, and have used molecular biological and morphological methods to study the pathogenesis of various infectious diseases. Currently, I am the Director of the South Carolina Center for Biotechnology at Claflin University, a clinical professor in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology at the University of South Carolina, School of Medicine, and an adjunct full professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. I have substantial experience in handling scientific, clinical, academic, and FDA related matters. I have trained many scientists in large medical schools in the United States and have reviewed numerous grant proposals and research papers. I have also reviewed MS and PhD theses and have been an active member of several academic, administrative, and study section committees, including at the National Institutes of Health.  My scientific interests are truly interdisciplinary and extend to various aspects of molecular infectious diseases, pathology, molecular biology, neurobiology, oncology, transgenic research, forensics, and the use of technology in theoretical biology. Much of my work has been recognized in top-tier journals, such as New England Journal of Medicine, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Journal of Virology, Journal of Immunology, Journal of Pediatrics, Nature Medicine, Nature Protocol and many other top tier journals. I have had considerable experience in training junior faculty as well as supervising undergraduate, graduate, and medical students, as well as post-doctoral researchers and medical fellows.  I have published more than 150 peer-reviewed research papers, authored two books (with two more in preparation), and 28 book chapters. I have also organized numerous national and international conferences and workshops in molecular infectious diseases, utilizing in situ PCR, Real-time PCR, RT-PCR, DNA Array, and Molecular Morphology Methods to detect infected cells in situ. In both my job and my profession, I have always held a deep commitment to excellence. My research programs have been continuously funded by many agencies, including multiple NIH (R01) grants and Program Projects as the principal investigator. I have experience in Investigational New Drug Applications (INDs) as well NDAs. I have worked with several pharmaceutical companies and have evaluated several clinical drugs. I am a team player and currently have funding that requires collaborations with other departments, schools, and institutions, both in the US and abroad.

I have been funded by NIH, NIAID, NCI, NSF, NIJ, DoD-CDMRP, DOE and several other federal and private agencies. For the last two decades, my major research efforts have been focused on the immunobiology/molecular study of retroviruses, with a particular emphasis on developing unique therapeutic approaches to the treatment of HIV-1. I am well-known in the scientific community for my invention of in situ polymerase chain reaction (IS-PCR).  My contributions in the development of the HIV-1 viral load concept as the primary means to assess the status of AIDS and role of co-factors in the development of AIDS are widely recognized. Being one of the original developers of the in situ PCR/hybridization, the US Patent Office has recognized the original nature of my work by issuing two patents on the in situ PCR technique in my name, these being the only two patents awarded in the area of PCR (besides the original PCR method). I was also the first to hypothesize and demonstrate that a pan-eukaryote, RNA-based gene silencing mechanism–molecular immunity (RNAi)–exists, which protects its genome against the invading dsRNA viruses, transposons, and other retroelements. Recently, this phenomenon has been demonstrated in a wide array of life forms as an important gene silencing mechanism and is known as RNA-interference (RNAi). I compiled and analyzed an extensive array of evidence for RNAi, focusing particularly on analysis of the successes and failures of defenses against HIVs, SIVs, and other lentiviruses in higher animals and man. This is the primary focus of my current research efforts.

In July 2001, I arrived at Claflin University in order to start the South Carolina Center for Biotechnology (SCCBT), the first such center at any Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the country at that time.  The University Board of Trustees officially approved the Center, the recruitment of faculty, and the development of courses in 2002. The Center initiated a major in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics in the 2002-2003-academic year, and then initiated a Masters in Biotechnology in the spring of 2005.  Since my arrival at Claflin, we have been able to expand opportunities for clinical collaborations and molecular medicine research, while expanding my leadership role in the training of young African Americans and other minorities in scientific research.  Because of numerous funding successes, Claflin has been able to pursue one of my early research efforts to answer the question, “Are there any consistent differences in the expression of significant genes or proteins in the prostate cancers taken from African Americans versus those from White Americans?”  Because there is a well-documented depression in zinc levels with neoplastic conversion of normal prostate cells, the study had initially focused on the expression of genes known as zinc transporters (hZIPs and hZnTs). The hypothesis is that the expression levels of one or more of these genes, as measured by mRNA expression (real time PCR and in situ RT PCR), may be differentially expressed in African Americans and European Americans. A study of the genes and proteins that influence the expression of any gene confirmed to be disparately expressed might lead to the identification of one or more environmental or living pattern factors worthy of epidemiological research for its potential relationship to the incidence or progression of prostate cancer in African Americans, European Americans, or other groups.  I have been well funded in this area of research (twice by DoD-CDMRP and once by the NCI).

Since my arrival in July 2001, I have been able to initiate major programs including a Forensic DNA major and a Forensic Service laboratory that is fully funded by the National Institute of Justice. The building is ready by the end of this year and will house a full drug analyses and DNA fingerprinting laboratory. We are also funded to develop a state-of-the-art forensic teaching and analyses laboratory and Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory (http://www.sph.sc.edu/news/virologylab.htm ).

My laboratory had also been an integral part of the $20 million EPSCoR funded grant from NSF tissue Biofabrication, which could lead to the production of human organs. SCCBT has been instrumental in the development of two key programs at Claflin University: development of a Biodefence laboratory and a Biofuel laboratory.  The Biodefence program is in collaboration with the Department of Chemistry and in our initial round we received $2 million to develop a separate Molecular Research Center (MRC) that included many high-tech instruments, including a 700MHz NMR.  This building opened in mid-October 2009.

More recently, my group has developed a novel procedure for directly fermenting cellulosic biological waste products into butanol. We are genetically engineering Clostridium species into bioreactors. Of note, butanol is far superior to ethanol since butanol is 4-carbon compound and carries much higher energy than 2-C ethanol. We have already received several patents on the inventions and are gearing towards up scaling the process this summer.  This invention is potentially quite important economically, and we are advancing rapidly towards the long-sought goal of utilizing non-food-based crops as feedstock for biofuel by engineering a unique bacterium that is robust, and can express all the necessary enzymes in one fell swoop.  My work has been recognized by both the General Assembly of South Carolina and the Congress of the United States,[1] with both of these bodies having specifically voted to fund our biofuel research.

Statement of Research

My research foci have always been multidisciplinary.  For the last 30 years I had been deeply involved in HIV/AIDS research. For the last two decades, my major research efforts have been focused on the immunobiology/molecular study of retroviruses, with a particular emphasis on developing unique therapeutic approaches to the treatment of HIV-1. I am well-known in the scientific community for my invention of in situ polymerase chain reaction (IS-PCR).  My contributions in the development of the HIV-1 viral load concept as the primary means to assess the status of AIDS and role of co-factors in the development of AIDS are widely recognized. Being one of the original developers of the in situ PCR/hybridization, the US Patent Office has recognized the original nature of my work by issuing two patents on the in situ PCR technique in my name, these being the only two patents awarded in the area of PCR (besides the original PCR method). I was also the first to hypothesize and demonstrate that a pan-eukaryote, RNA-based gene silencing mechanism–molecular immunity (RNAi)–exists, which protects its genome against the invading dsRNA viruses, transposons, and other retroelements. I have also been granted a patent on this concept.

My current research focus is on Autism. Most of my focus is to determine why boys are 5 times more prone to develop autism than girls. Recently, we have discovered that certain environmental factors (fragrances) deplete oxytocin receptor positive neurons in male fetal neuronal cell lines as compared to the female cell lines.   I am also writing a book on environmental factors and Autism.

My second major current focus is on Alzheimer’s disease. There is well documented evidence that many environmental factors are detrimental in normal human fetal brain development.  For example, thalidomide, valporic acid, misoprostol, chlorpyrifos, mercury and various infectious teratogenic agents (i.e., cytomegalovirus, rubella, toxoplasmosis and herpes simplex virus syphilis). The potential effects of glyphosate (the major ingredient of Roundup) in development of autism spectrum disorder have been proposed by Seneff et al from MIT.  Very little attention has been paid to fragrances that are so pervasive in our environment and contain synthetic ingredients from petrochemicals and benzene ring compounds that have been contain hormone disturbing chemicals and impart neurotoxic and neuromodifying effects on human neuroblastoma cells.  One can argue that why fragrances and Roundup do not show any obvious harmful effects on adult brains?  Well!  The key word should be “obvious”.  The reason that environmental factors that interfere in the rapidly proliferating and differentiating normal fetal development are not considered to be neurotoxic for an adult is based on the idea that an adult brain is fully differentiated and there is no neurogenesis is occurring.   As a matter of fact adult neurogenesis has been well documented in the hippocampus, amygdala, piriform cortex, dentate gyrus and olfactory bulb. Neurogenesis in subventricular zone of hippocampus is considered to be involved in the fine modulation of olfaction, repair of cortical injuries, and defense of the viral spreading from the central olfactory pathway.  We are working on several environmental factors that are known to interference in fetal brain development are also neurotoxic to the adult brain cells that are going through regular neurogenesis (i.e. olfactory bulb, amygdala, hypothalamus, piriform cortex).  Recent studies have also highlighted the loss of olfaction during the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease and loss of hippocampus neurons. Of note, the hippocampus is one of the earliest affected brain regions in Alzheimer’s disease and its dysfunction is believed to underlie the core feature of the disease-memory impairment and thinning of the hippocampal volume is one of the best biomarkers Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus has two major interconnected roles. It is involved in consolidation of some forms of memory and learning and emotional processing. Neurogenesis is essential for memory, learning mood and olfaction there is extensive evidence showing that these processes are altered in Alzheimer’s disease. The cause of Alzheimer’s disease must be viewed in light of the temporal expression of neurogenesis in adult brains and the types of cells that may be most harmed by exposure to neuromodifying environmental factors.  We forward the hypothesis that the most likely culprit may be the fragrances that are mostly used by women and this gender suffers from the highest rate of Alzheimer’s disease.

[1] Clyburn JE (2007) “Hope for South Carolina’s Future”, address delivered before the South Carolina General Assembly by US Representative and House Majority Whip, James E. Clyburn, at the opening of the 2007 legislative session, http://democraticwhip.house.gov/speeches_statements/2007/04/10/hope_for_south_carolinas_future.html