William P. Hanage, Ph.D., Department of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, has received a 2012 ICAAC Young Investigator Award. Hanage is honored for his work studying the epidemiology and evolution of infectious disease. “Hanage has provided game changing tools and expertise in the pneumococcal field, first with MLST and now with whole genome sequencing, to reach into the world of the organism,” explains Katherine O’Brien of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “His work has revealed ways in which the pathogen attempts to escape vaccine control. He is brilliant, innovative, and tangential in his thinking— one of those rare people who can see connections where others do not.”
Hanage graduated from the University of Bath, United Kingdom, with an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from Imperial College London in the laboratory of Jonathan Cohen studying host microbial interactions, where he developed a passion for infectious disease research. After obtaining his Ph.D., Hanage worked in Brian Spratt’s laboratory at the University of Oxford and later in the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the Imperial College London, studying the molecular epidemiology of bacterial pathogens. He joined the faculty at Harvard School of Public Health in 2010.
Over time, Hanage developed an interest in theoretical approaches to epidemiology to complement the molecular perspective gained from his formal education. He continues to combine empirical and theoretical methods in his research. “Hanage’s research productivity throughout his career speaks to his creativity and ability to cross over between disciplines, pulling from one area of expertise to apply tools to another domain,” says O’Brien. Especially interested in subjects that combine clinical importance with fundamental biological questions, Hanage looks at questions like how pathogens respond to novel selective pressures in the form of antimicrobials and vaccines. He has a specific interest in understanding the factors behind the response of the bacterial population to pneumococcal conjugate vaccination.
In addition to such clinically focused questions, Hanage has worked extensively on the phenomenon of homologous recombination in bacteria, which shuffles genetic material among lineages, studying how it can be detected and its consequences for how bacteria respond in the face of novel selective pressures. “He has developed new methods for data analysis and combining molecular and traditional epidemiology,” says Stephen Pelton, Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Indeed, recombination or horizontal gene transfer makes the very notion of species problematic for bacteria, another of Hanage’s major interests, one for which he was awarded a University Research Fellowship by the Royal Society. Hanage has also increasingly become involved with population genomic analyses of large numbers of very closely related pathogen isolates to probe in detail their patterns of transmission and diversification. His work on pathogen evolution was recognized with the 2012 Fleming Prize from the Society for General Microbiology. “Recently, Hanage has been among the pioneers of genomic epidemiology for bacterial pathogens. He exemplifies the combination of theoretical and experimental skills that will be fundamental to the future of infectious disease epidemiology,” describes nominator Marc Lipsitch, Harvard School of Public Health.
“I believe Hanage’s largest contributions have yet to come,” says Pelton. “I think he will lead us to new insights into genetic regulation that permit specific clones of Streptococcus pneumoniae to successfully compete in the nasopharynx, to be more easily transmitted from person to person, and to evade host defenses to cause disease. I am confident that this will inform new approaches to treatment and disease prevention.”
“Beyond his scientific accomplishments, for which his publication record speaks clearly, his personal and mentoring characteristics have to be emphasized,” summarized O’Brien. “He is a gem of a colleague—enthusiastic, welcoming of collaborations, generous with his time toward students, and a genuine scholarly partner.”
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