University of South Florida

Health News

At USF Health, virology research is a team sport.

Part II of a series highlighting the arrival of Dr. Robert Gallo and the Global Virus Network to the University of South Florida.

Collaboration powers USF Health virology research

The drive for scientific collaboration motivated the creation of the Global Virus Network, the organization now relocating its international headquarters to its new host, the University of South Florida.

Dr. Robert Gallo and his co-founders created the organization – with boasts more than 80 centers of excellence and affiliates in more than 40 nations – in order to bring “the best virologists and public health experts together to leverage individual strengths and to focus global teams of scientists on key scientific problems.”

“You collaborate because you need it,” Dr. Gallo said in a recent interview. “You need input from smart people around you. For instance, I used to have an annual retreat for my lab at NIH. We would meet somewhere in the countryside near a lake, and at first there were five or six of us, then 10 or 12. And gradually other collaborators wanted to join, and they brought a few people with them.  And we eventually grew into an international meeting, because my collaborators were often abroad. We finally had to cap it at 1,000 people. But it was a famous meeting that, I think, helped enormously in the development of the entire field of HIV and AIDS research.”

So it’s not surprising that four of Dr. Gallo’s colleagues will soon join him on the faculty of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. But the four investigators relocating with him to Tampa will also bolster important research endeavors – with collaboration at the core of their work.

“I recruited each one of them and they’ve developed while working with me and other parties,” Dr. Gallo said. “So we have been interacting and collaborating with each other on and off for several years and many years in some cases.”

Dr. Gallo, one of the nation’s most respected physician scientists, is the only two-time winner of the prestigious Lasker Award and co-discoverer of HIV as the cause of AIDS. Dr. Gallo and his team are already busy expanding their collaborative network, making plans to work with some of USF Health’s research leaders, including: Dr. Albert Sotomayor, director of the Cancer Institute at Tampa General Hospital; Dr. Christian Brechot, senior associate dean of Research for Global Affairs and GVN’s vice chair; Dr. Kami Kim, MCOM’s director of the division of Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine; Dr. Charles J. Lockwood, executive vice president of USF Health and dean of College of Medicine and many others.

"For me to get something to be translational requires it to be demonstrated clinically, where you obviously need collaboration,” Dr. Gallo said. “So I’m going to work closely, for example, with Dr. Sotomayor because I want to and he wants to – and because we care about cancer and infectious roles of bacteria and infectious roles of viruses. And especially the HTLV-1 story will be one of the highlights for me there.”

Serving as GVN’s base will allow USF to enhance its impact as a new member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, grow its research enterprise – which saw a record amount of funding last year ­– and further build its reputation around the world, fueled by collaborative investigations at home and overseas.

In the field of virology, teamwork is especially vital, Dr. Gallo said. 

 “All fields need it, but I think it lends itself even more so, because it’s a public health threat,” he said. “In my era, it was not thought so much to be a public health threat, but it still led to collaboration because so many fields overlap. It’s impossible not to have collaborations in virology. Yes, you can work in isolation in virology, studying, for example, the spike protein in HIV or Ebolo or COVID. But ultimately you’ll be collaborating with people in other areas.”

Dr. Gallo and his team, meanwhile, are expected to start arriving on campus in early July. Here is a closer look at their respective backgrounds:

Yukata Tagaya, MD, PhD; assistant professor, Morsani College of Medicine. Dr. Tagaya has been an assistant professor in the Institute of Human Virology (IHV) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he leads the Laboratory of Cell Biology. Dr. Tagaya has a long-standing research career in cytokine biology and lymphocyte biology. He has recently conceptualized unique and innovative multi-cytokine inhibitors that block the function of multiple cytokines with structural and functional similarities. 

Using these inhibitors, Dr. Tagaya and co-workers have just completed a phase 2 clinical trial in patients with two T-cell malignancies, large-granulocytic lymphocyte leukemia (LGLL) and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL) with promising therapeutic efficacy. These studies offer a novel therapeutic option to diseases that are currently without an approved cure. 

“Yutaka is the most senior of the group by a few years,” Dr. Gallo said. “When he was at NCI NIH, he discovered the receptor and isolated it for a major cytokine called Interleukin-15. That gave him some notoriety that brought him to my attention. He’s also a cellular immunologist that one needs – we have no others around us. He’s really smart and someone you can count on for almost everything.”

Yukata Tagaya, MD, PhD

Yukata Tagaya, MD, PhD

Dr. Tagaya also supervises the operation of the IHV Flow/Sorting CORE. Dr. Tagaya’s research interests also focus on two other areas: first, the development of a CAR-T-based therapy in the treatment of human diseases caused by the human oncogenic retrovirus human T-cell leukemia virus-1; and second, the pathological involvement of a subset of CD8 T-cells that express the NKG2A antigen, as a driver of graft-versus-host disease in patients undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Dr. Tagaya earned his MD and PhD from Kyoto University Medical School in Japan.

Davide Zella, PhD, associate professor, Morsani College of Medicine. Dr. Zella has been an assistant professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as well as the co-leader of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology, in the IHV at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Zella has several research projects underway focused on the mechanisms of cellular malignant transformation following interactions between components of the human microbiota and their host cells, including how this transformation process may affect resistance to anti-cancer drugs. He is also studying the role of the vaginal microbiota in adverse pregnancy events and chromosomal anomalies that originate in utero, causing miscarriage and birth defects. Dr. Zella is in the process of finalizing funding for a large new federal grant. He earned his PhD from the University of Pavia in Italy.

Davide Zella, PhD

Davide Zella, PhD

Francesca Benedetti, MS, PhD, MBA, assistant professor, Morsani College of Medicine. Dr. Benedetti has been a research associate in the IHV. She studies mechanisms of cellular transformation following interactions between components of the human microbiota and their host. She is also investigating how the vaginal microbiota contributes to adverse pregnancy events and chromosomal abnormalities originating in utero. Dr. Benedetti earned her PhD from the University of Parma in Italy and her MBA from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Francesca Benedetti, MS, PhD, MBA

Francesca Benedetti, MS, PhD, MBA

“Francesca works with Davide Zella and me,” Dr. Gallo said. “They also work independently but the three of us work on a bacterial protein. This protein has certain bad activities that we discovered – it does things like alter DNA in a significant way. In addition, it prevents our ability to repair the DNA. But we believe we can make current chemotherapy work better by targeting this protein from bacteria. And we believe that in addition to making current drugs work better, we can help people with cancer of certain types where these bacteria are located. Francesca is working very hard on this story academically, as is Davide.”

 Hongshou Song, PhD, associate professor, Morsani College of Medicine. Dr. Song also joins USF Health from the IHV at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she was an assistant professor and the head of the laboratory of molecular virology. Prior to joining the University of Maryland in 2020, Dr. Song was a scientist with the U.S. Military HIV Research Program. “I recruited her from the Army,” Dr. Gallo said. “While Dr. Zella and Dr. Benedetti came to me as first-year post-doctoral students, Dr. Song arrived as a beginning investigator collaborating on HIV. She trusted my advice and wanted to come over.”

Dr. Song’s research focuses on the interface of HIV genetic evolution, phenotypic properties and pathogenesis, with the long-term goal of developing HIV prevention and functional cure strategies. In particular, Dr. Song’s lab is currently focused on a new concept termed “escape by shifting” to understand the co-evolution of virus entry pathway and antigenicity. The central hypothesis is that for a virus with entry pathway flexibility, entry pathway alteration can function as an evolutionary mechanism for immune evasion in vivo.

Hongshou Song, PhD

Hongshou Song, PhD

This research direction has direct implications for the general understanding of virus immune evasion, pathogeneses, and host range. She currently is working on two NIH-funded research projects. Dr. Song earned her PhD from the Peking University Health Science Center.

To see part I of this series, click here

Return to article listing

About Health News

USF Health News highlights the great work of the faculty, staff and students across the four health colleges – Morsani College of Medicine, College of Public Health, College of Nursing and Taneja College of Pharmacy – and the multispecialty physicians group. USF Health, an integral part of the University of South Florida, integrates research, education and health care to reach our shared value - making life better.