Dr. Jian Han, faculty investigator, discusses how he combined two very different career paths into the one he has at HudsonAlpha.
Q: When did you begin your career in genetics and infectious diseases? What drew you to the fields?
Genetics and infectious diseases are at odds with each other. When I was in graduate school, the professors told us, “Don’t worry about infectious diseases; antibiotics take care of them. In the future, most patients will come in for this or that kind of genetic defect.” Now we know this is not the case: Infectious diseases still kill far more people than genetic diseases and may become even more pressing.
I started out wanting to be a geneticist, but ended up using the molecular genetics skills I learned during my studies for infectious disease diagnosis. I wanted to be a geneticist and follow in the footsteps of my father who was a world famous geneticist. He invented a procedure called chorionic villus sampling (taking a small amount of tissue from the placenta for prenatal diagnosis of genetic defects). Influenced by him, I went to medical school and later entered the genetics field.
I started a company, Genaco, in 1996 to market genetic testing technology and products to China. I developed the product and got Chinese FDA approval, but others quickly copied my technology and competed with me at one-third of the price. But then, SARS hit China in 2003. I quickly recognized the potential of using the same molecular technology for infectious disease diagnosis. I developed a method called tem-PCR that allows the detection of potentially 10-20 infectious agents with one test. The rest is history.
So, I ended up working with infectious diseases not by choice, but was instead pushed here by market forces.
Q: You have M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. Which one did you receive first and what drove you to pursue the second?
I received my M.D. from China in ‘83 and only practiced half a year before I came to UAB and enrolled in their medical genetics Ph.D. program.
I did not stay in China because back then, a physician made less than $10 USD a month there. Additionally, I wanted to become a medical geneticist like my father, which is why I came here. I went to UAB because my father had a friend from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], Dr. Andrew Chen. Dr. Chen recommended me to Dr. Wayne Finley at UAB and I was accepted there as the first Chinese student in the department.
I received a Ph.D. degree, but I also met my beautiful wife, Mei, there. She was a Ph.D. student in the neuroscience program, and we took the same class. We were the first couple from both sides of the Taiwan Strait on the UAB campus. The two sides were political enemies then, which caused a lot of anxiety for our parents.
Q: How did you end up at HudsonAlpha?
Because of the tem-PCR technology we developed at Genaco in Huntsville, a German company, Qiagen, acquired us in 2006. After working for Qiagen for a year, I left the company to gain more freedom. Jim [Hudson] invited me to join HudsonAlpha in 2007. I was the first investigator to join the institute.
Q: What is your role as a faculty investigator? What does your research involve?
As an investigator, my role is to lead a group of 10 scientists to develop technology for infectious disease diagnoses and to study the immune system. Both activities use the same tool, multiplex PCR, which allows us to see more molecular changes with one experiment. There are three groups in my team. One group includes talented engineers who are developing automated machines to carry out molecular tests. The machines will eventually be sold to hospitals and clinics; however, now they are used for research, only. The second group is working on developing tests that run on the machine. The third group is studying the immune system.
Q: How has the H1N1-09 media coverage impacted your research?
Not much. It is just a part of the process for us. We did not develop the H1N1 test to be popular. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, we developed a test for H5N1 avian flu, and we were there to develop tests following the tsunami in Thailand. So, we know our technology can be a very useful tool for public health. As soon as I heard that the emergency rooms were packed with patients in New York, I knew it [H1N1 influenza] was going to be serious and I started to work. It took us only 9 days to develop and validate a test. Development took only 4 days, but to validate with CDC samples took a few more days. It took less than two weeks to get the H1N1 influenza test from the lab bench to offering the test to the public through Diatherix Laboratories. The test has received “emergency use authorization” by the FDA.
Q: You have a unique relationship with resident associate Diatherix Laboratories. Would you explain that relationship?
The founder of Diatherix, Dennis Grimaud, was the CEO of Genaco. We have worked together since 2004 to market our technology and products worldwide. Dennis is a seasoned entrepreneur and a very successful businessman. He knows the healthcare industry very well and now Diatherix is thriving. Randy Ward, president, handles the daily management of the company. Randy is very experienced at establishing and running clinical diagnostics labs. I serve as laboratory director for Diatherix.
Q: What have you learned while at HudsonAlpha? Are there other areas of potential collaboration in addition to Diatherix?
What I learned in HudsonAlpha is that this is heaven. It is the best place on earth to get things done. My interests are not just in scientific research. I am more interested in taking laboratory science and applying it to solve the most pressing healthcare problems. I do not start research from my desk or my mind: It all starts with a need from a physician or a patient. They are my customers, my teachers and my collaborators.
Q: Why do you like working at HudsonAlpha?
I like HudsonAlpha because it gives me the opportunity to bridge science and clinical needs. I get to work with the most talented scientists and engineers, developing the most cutting edge technologies and instruments. HudsonAlpha also has the most advanced genomic technology and support in terms of high throughput sequencing. I also have the opportunity to firmly establish and advance an immune repertoire study — a brand new field.
Q: You’ve been a faculty investigator and you’ve run a business. What’s next for you?
Doing more of both.