Trudy Morrison Fd.’63 has a long history of dealing with microbes. Her father, Berea College biology professor Seth Gilkerson ’38, would send her out into the flora around campus to search for naturally occurring antibiotics.
“He’d have me out gathering various things and putting them on bacterial plates to see if I could inhibit the bacteria,” Morrison said. “I didn’t find anything.”
As far as potential careers went, young Trudy had no intentions of following her father’s footsteps into the sciences. She took this lack of intention with her to Wellesley College, where she attended on scholarship and where she ultimately changed her mind. Soon after, she was pursuing a Ph.D. at Tufts University, studying viruses that infected bacteria. But her true interest was in viruses that infected humans, which led her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked with Nobel Prize-winning virologist David Baltimore. Eventually, she landed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to conduct her own research. She serves there currently as a professor in the department of microbiology and physiological systems.
For many years, her research included studying the Newcastle disease virus, a pathogen that infects birds. It was a
safe virus to work with because it doesn’t infect humans, and because of that it required no special laboratory environment. Things changed, however, in 2001, when the U.S. government named the Newcastle disease virus to its list of “select agents.” The virus was added due to its potential effect on the poultry industry. The new designation on a list that includes pathogens such as Ebola meant Morrison had to transition to studying viruses in a super-containment lab.
“We have a number of people here working on select agents as well as other fairly serious pathogens,” she said. “We also have an animal BSL-3 lab, which means we can infect animals with these viruses as well. So that increases the spectrum of work that we can do with these pathogens.”
Among the pathogens Morrison works with is the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus that is especially dangerous for babies and, like SARS-CoV-2, the elderly. Scientists, including Morrison, have been working on a vaccine for RSV since the 1960s, and for the past decade she has devoted her own time to developing one. In 2012, Morrison and a graduate student working in her lab, Homer Pantua, had a breakthrough with the development of something called a “virus-like particle.”
Virus-like particles express the major structural proteins of a virus in a virus- sized particle without the genome. It’s a kind of clone of the virus, not the virus itself, and its development offered a “back door” to studying the RSV virus.
“After two or three days,” Morrison said, “the cells expressing viral proteins released particles that look just like a virus particle. Homer said to me, ‘You know, this would make a great vaccine.’ It was an unusual suggestion, but it worked beautifully. He could immunize animals with these virus-like particles and get beautiful neutralizing antibodies in these animals.”
The idea showed promise, but since babies’ immune systems are immature, Morrison wanted to learn if the antibodies could be passed from mother to offspring after maternal immunization. In 2013, the Morrison Lab began testing the concept with cotton rats—and it worked.
“We’ve been very successful in showing that in this animal model,” Morrison said. “We can immunize the mom, and the pups are quite well protected against infection. That’s where we were about a year ago, and then COVID hit, and we were all sent home.”
Sheltering at home was short-lived for the UMass virus researcher. Over the course of the next week, it became clear to members of the administration that they had special resources, in terms of scientists and laboratories, that could aid in understanding the coronavirus and potentially developing a vaccine. Morrison submitted a proposal to apply her virus-like particle research to COVID-19 and was called back to the lab.
As Morrison worked on a vaccine based on her virus-like particle, pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Moderna moved forward with a different kind of vaccine based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) of the coronavirus. The process is simpler than creating a virus-like particle, and the companies were able to speed their vaccines into clinical trials much faster than Morrison was able to replicate.
“When I started,” she said, “I had no idea that those mRNA vaccines were going to be so good. I was really skeptical because there has been no licensed vaccine developed using that technology. But it worked beautifully, and the efficacy of those vaccines is just striking.”
Morrison added that it was good they were able to work so fast. Their new approach could result in the development of other vaccines for other pathogens and make them easier to produce. Though the pharmaceutical industry had the resources to be able to produce a vaccine much faster than an academic could, Morrison says questions still remain about the durability of this type of vaccine.
“We do not know how durable the protection will be after immunization with the mRNA vaccine,” she said. “Vaccine designs such as mine may induce protective responses that are more durable. I do know that immunization of animal models with my vaccine candidates induces protection for the life of the animal.”
Morrison will continue to study the pathogen and hopes her virus-like particle will find its niche. At the very least, it can be used as a tool to ask questions about the structure and function of various virus proteins that will enable vaccine development for other pathogens. Academic labs like Morrison’s are ideally suited to addressing these questions. In addition, her research will be important for other coronaviruses that emerge in the future.
“This is a serious concern since the SARS-CoV-2 is the second coronavirus that has caused a pandemic in the past 15 years,” Morrison said. “There is certainly potential for other related viruses to cause problems in the future.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for an academic is getting a vaccine candidate into clinical trials. The expense and logistics of testing beyond animals produce a barrier more difficult to overcome than for pharmaceutical companies. Nonetheless, Morrison will continue to research coronavirus and has resumed her research on her RSV vaccine in the hopes that she will find a company willing to take the vaccine candidate to clinical trials.
Today, there is only Berea College, but once upon a time on campus there was an elementary school, Knapp Hall, and a high school, the Foundation School, that served the local community while training teachers. Trudy Morrison attended both schools as her father, Seth Gilkerson, taught biology at the College.
“It was a really terrific way to get an education,” Morrison said. “I transferred after my sophomore year, when my father moved to North Carolina.” At her new school, the junior was given books she was already familiar with, having used them in the eighth grade in Berea. “I was so far ahead because of Berea. My junior and senior year in high school were a total waste.”
Morrison’s mother, Anna Sue Osborn ’38, is an alumna of Berea College. Morrison suggested her parents’ lives would have been very different if not for a school that didn’t charge tuition.
“Berea is unique in terms of the approach to education and educating people who can’t afford to go to college otherwise,” she said. “My parents would not have gone to college if it hadn’t been for that.”