Montana State University

Adaptable immunologist to speak March 24 in Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series

March 4, 2015 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

MSU immunologist Allen Harmsen will continue the university's Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series with his March 24 talk on “Research: Needs and Opportunities from AIDS to Influenza.” (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

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BOZEMAN - Allen Harmsen thinks a good scientist and a virus have something in common. They both must adapt to be successful.

Harmsen has learned the importance of adaptability as a scientist who has made a career researching opportunistic pathogens that attack the human lung, so perhaps it is not surprising that he has learned to take advantage of opportunities himself.

The professor in Montana State University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology is an accomplished and noted immunologist who has been studying diseases of the lung for decades and heads a successful pulmonary immunology and immunopathology lab on the MSU campus. Harmsen is also the principal investigator of a $10.7 million, five-year grant establishing a center at MSU to research a variety of health issues faced by rural Montanans. And, he is also the principal investigator of Montana INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence), an $18 million, five-year grant funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health. 

That makes Harmsen a very busy man with diverse creative activities, which is a quality Harmsen thinks is an asset to a scientist. He will discuss the importance of adaptability to a scientific career when he delivers the next presentation in the Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series. He will speak on “Research: Needs and Opportunities from AIDS to Influenza,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, in MSU's Hager Auditorium of the Museum of the Rockies. A reception will follow.

“Being really successful in science is difficult, but if you can be aware of opportunities and take advantage of them and do it quickly, it enhances the chances of being funded,” Harmsen said. “And it’s fun, too, because it allows a scientist to change and do something different that has an impact.”

Harmsen’s research has looked at diseases of the lung. He explains that the lung is susceptible to infection because potential pathogens move into the airways by breathing.

“The lung must respond to these pathogens quickly and intensely to avoid infection,” he said.

Harmsen’s first experience in quickly responding to an infectious disease was during the AIDS epidemic when he began researching Pneumocystis pneumonia, an infection caused by a fungus that causes inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs. While healthy people can fight off the disease, those with compromised immune systems find it difficult.

“There was a real need at that time for research on AIDS that in turn created opportunities for scientists,” Harmsen said. A native of Iowa, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1974. His doctorate in immunology was from Iowa State University. He did a postdoc at the Vermont Lung Center at the University of Vermont.

In 1998, Harmsen became a member of the Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake, N.Y. Shortly after, following the Sept. 11 attacks, Harmsen became interested in studying lung infections important in biodefense.

“After 9/11, Congress and others were concerned about anthrax, which was being mailed in anonymous letters, so money was alloted to study biodefense,” he said.

He began to study Q Fever, which is a pneumonia resulting from the inhalation of the bacterium Coxiella burnetii. Like anthrax, the organism is believed to be a potential weapon for bioterrorists.

When Harmsen moved to MSU in 2001 to become head of what was then Veterinary Molecular Biology, his and other faculty’s NIH biodefense grants enabled the university to build a Biosecurity Level -3 lab to conduct their research.

“My professional life has been determined by current events,” Harmsen said.

His move to MSU also allowed him to adapt his work to another area of science. Once at MSU he collaborated with chemistry professor Trevor Douglas and plant pathology professor Mark Young on using the shell of a virus as a delivery system for vaccines, particularly for influenza. Harmsen and his colleagues are working on an influenza vaccine that would protect against all strains of influenza. Currently, the annual flu vaccine targets what scientists believe will be the most common strain during the year. However, Harmsen notes that the annual vaccine must be based on speculation, particularly because there is genetic drift in strains of influenza.

“We are working on a vaccine that is as adaptive as influenza,” said Harmsen, who still advocates getting a flu shot each year. He calls the shots “very important in the battle against flu.” He said he is proud that his lab now includes gifted young researchers working on the issue, and developing scientists of the future is important to him.

Harmsen himself has evolved to look at disease from another perspective. As the PI for INBRE, he is looking at new ways to even health disparities, particularly in rural Montana. Among the grant projects are research into substance abuse in rural communities. The project utilizes social and behavioral research, so for the first time in his career Harmsen is also looking at social science research.

“Instead of trying to treat the symptoms of the disease, we are looking at how to prevent the disease,” Harmsen said of his new work with the large INBRE and COBRE grants. “I see it as an evolution in my career. I feel that I am lucky to have the opportunity to do this work at this point in my life and career. I have the opportunity to really make a difference.”

The Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, which is free and open to the public, recognizes faculty distinguished at MSU for their scholarship and creativity. Faculty presenting during the series will reflect on the inspirations for their work in lectures suited for professionals and lay people alike.

For more information, contact the MSU Office of the Provost at (406) 994-4371 or provost@montana.edu.

Anne Cantrell at (406) 994-4902 or anne.cantrell@montana.edu