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Colleen Jonsson: Propelling the RBL Forward

Dr. Colleen Jonsson

Colleen Jonsson, PhD, director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, has dedicated her life to studying highly pathogenic viruses and plant infectious agents.  In a career that spans nearly 30 years, she has been involved in the fight against such global viral threats as West Nile, SARS, and Zika, leading the formation and command of teams in environmental surveys in humans and rodents in North, Central and South America.  Her work is represented in more than 100 publications and 6 patents; she has led the creation of drug discovery programs at both the Southern Research Institute and the University of Louisville.Since joining UTHSC in 2017, Dr. Jonsson has leveraged her background and experience to augment UTHSC’s existing foundations of infectious disease research, by propelling the RBL forward and by creating a new institute with substantial national funding.

As the new RBL Director, Dr. Jonsson, who also serves as Endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology and professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry, revamped its services to be more robust and provide enhanced targeted services for both BSL-2 and BSL-3 in vitro and in vivo studies. She is helping recruit new investigators whose research programs require RBL services and working to build service units that collaborate with investigators from academics or industry in the submission of new grants, contracts, or fee-for-services from outside UTSHC.  She is working to secure contracts that use our RBL facilities for pathogen discovery, pathogen diagnostics, or animal model development.

Recognizing host-pathogen systems biology as an area focusing on UTHSC’s unique strengths, she created the Institute for the Study of Host Pathogen Systems (ISHPS) in 2017. The Institute synergizes infectious disease research among an interdisciplinary group of faculty across UTHSC. Dr. Jonsson’s vision for ISHPS centered on the model of Convergence Research and aims to build new relationships across departments and colleges focused on pathogen research critical to the development of new treatments and diagnostic tools.

As part of this effort, Dr. Jonsson leveraged the institutional support offered by the campus and the Office of Research in a $21 million U19 award from the National Institutes of Health to create and lead the Center of Excellence (COE) for Encephalitic Alphavirus Therapeutics (CEEAT).  The project, funded over five years, works to develop therapeutic drugs to treat three mosquito-borne alphaviruses that cause serious illness in humans and horses: Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV), Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV) and Western Equine encephalitis virus (WEEV).  The COE’s goal is to refine potent small molecule compounds previously identified as promising antiviral drugs for treating the encephalitis viruses and enable those compounds to move to the next step of research, clinical trials in humans.

In early 2020, with the emergence of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, UTHSC’s RBL was converted to a COVID-19 research facility. Dr. Jonsson reassigned her entire staff to work on research related to SARS-CoV-2.  The team is trying to discover therapeutics to treat the virus, both from existing FDA approved drugs and from new compounds that might be effective. They are performing high throughput screening of small molecules that have been selected using computational simulation by Jeremy Smith, director of the joint UT/Oak Ridge National Laboratory Center for Molecular Biophysics.  Dr. Jonsson’s team is also exploring how to disinfect N95 masks for reuse, as well as working to better understand the characteristics of the virus to determine why it is more severe in some individuals than others.

Answering the swift call to action against COVID-19 involved applying for new federal funding. Dr. Jonsson is part of a larger team of ORNL researchers who are planning a proposal to the Department of Energy for support necessary to continue their critical response work.

This latest work and new grant application, coupled with the strides yielded by Dr. Jonsson’s efforts over the last three years, positions UTHSC to reach new heights in national recognition and funding.  Her contributions will strengthen the foundations of infectious disease research for generations of faculty and students to come.