University of Georgia

Noted researcher Karen Norris named GRA Eminent Scholar

Researcher in lab

One of the nation’s leading infectious disease researchers will join the University of Georgia faculty this fall as its newest Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

Karen Norris, currently a professor of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh, will join the faculty of UGA’s Department of Infectious Diseases of the College of Veterinary Medicine and the newly developed Center for Vaccines and Immunology on Sept. 1 as the GRA Eminent Scholar in Immunology and Translational Biomedical Research.

The Georgia Research Alliance has partnered with Georgia’s research universities to recruit world-class scientists who foster science- and technology-based economic development since 1990. GRA also invests in technology for research labs, helps commercialize university-based inventions and facilitates collaboration among academia, business and government. Norris will be the 16th active GRA Eminent Scholar at UGA.

“I am pleased that Dr. Norris will be joining UGA,” said President Jere W. Morehead. “Her innovative work will expand the outstanding infectious disease research already being conducted here and will contribute significantly to the university’s efforts to translate research into treatments for some of the world’s most deadly diseases.”

Norris’ research focuses on infectious and chronic diseases, including HIV, pulmonary diseases, inflammatory diseases and diabetes. She has developed a number of highly relevant disease models, which she uses to understand the basic mechanisms of disease susceptibility and progression, and to test interventions that treat or prevent disease.

One of the many accomplishments her laboratory is known for is an animal model of Pneumocystis pneumonia, or PCP, one of the most frequent and severe opportunistic infections in people with weakened immune systems. She also was the first to demonstrate that PCP is a co-factor in the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive lung disease and the third leading cause of death in the U.S. The Norris laboratory led the development of a vaccine to protect against PCP, which has shown great efficacy in a pre-clinical model of the disease.

Norris also is developing models of respiratory syncytial virus infection, a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. While most healthy people with RSV only experience mild cold-like symptoms, it can be serious for infants and older adults. Her disease model may be particularly useful for vaccine and therapeutic testing, work that she will pursue with other UGA infectious disease researchers in the College of Veterinary Medicine, including GRA Eminent Scholars Ted Ross and Ralph Tripp, as well as GRA Distinguished Investigators Biao He and Don Harn.

“We are delighted to welcome Dr. Norris to the GRA Academy of Eminent Scholars,” said C. Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Research Alliance. “Her research is an essential building block necessary to developing vaccines and immunotherapies. She will make an excellent addition to the highly regarded team of scholars we have helped to recruit in this growing scientific cluster.”

In addition to pulmonary infectious diseases, Norris is interested in understanding the immunologic basis for other HIV-related pulmonary diseases, including pulmonary hypertension, which is a life-threatening complication of HIV infection resulting in lung artery disease and heart failure. She has shown that chronic inflammation plays a major role in its development.

Because pulmonary hypertension and chronic inflammation also are associated with metabolic diseases, including insulin resistance and diabetes, Norris recently established predictive models of metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.

UGA Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Pamela Whitten noted that Norris comes to UGA during a period of extraordinary growth in sponsored research activity and growing interest in STEM fields among students.

“At a time when women remain underrepresented in the sciences and many other fields, Dr. Norris will be a superb mentor and role model for the next generation of researchers,” Whitten said. “Her record of accomplishment speaks for itself, and she is a critical addition to an extraordinary faculty.”

Norris received her bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green University and her Ph.D. from Wright State University. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Scripps Research Institute. She also has served as a director of the University of Pittsburgh’s HIV Lung Research Center and was a member of its Cancer Institute, Center for Vaccine Research and Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

“I am very pleased to join the faculty of the University of Georgia and honored to be recognized by the Georgia Research Alliance as an Eminent Scholar,” Norris said. “This is an exciting time of growth for biomedical research at UGA, particularly in the areas of infectious diseases and vaccine development, and I look forward to working with colleagues at UGA, the Georgia Research Alliance and the greater Georgia research community on the development of novel vaccines and immunotherapeutics.”