Winter 2018

A Leader from the Lab

Linden Hu, known for his work on Lyme disease, is the new vice dean of research.

By Helene Ragovin

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Photo: Anna Miller

Linden Hu entered medical school at Brown University on track to become a primary care physician. But the unexpected success of his first research project—unexpected to him, at any rate—changed the course of his career. Hu discovered how the bacterium that causes Lyme disease uses proteins from a host against itself to ensure its survival—a significant step in understanding a disease that infects 300,000 people in the United States every year. “They say that if you hit the first time you play the slots, you keep on playing,” Hu said with a laugh. “So that’s how I got started.”

Almost two decades later, Hu has secured more than 20 National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and is an internationally recognized expert on Lyme disease. In November, he became the vice dean of research at the School of Medicine.

As a small-to-medium research enterprise, the medical school can best use its resources to produce high-impact results through integration of research areas and increased collaboration within the medical school and with faculty across the university, Hu said. “With the current focus nationally on interdisciplinary science, it’s a great time to develop areas of collaboration in areas where we are already strong.” For example, multiple groups at the medical school are collaborating with scientists in biomedical engineering on the Medford/Somerville campus.

Hu joined the School of Medicine in 2015 as a tenured professor of molecular biology and microbiology. He has had an appointment at the medical school since 1997 while on staff at Tufts Medical Center, where he was vice chair for faculty development in the department of medicine. He has served on numerous research-related committees at Tufts and on NIH review panels, and has mentored dozens of young investigators.

While the extent of government research funding is never certain, Hu is optimistic. “I think the current climate puts the medical school in a good position,” he said. “The NIH is really looking for higher-risk, higher-impact projects that impact human health, and that plays to our strengths.”

Hu’s focus on Lyme disease, which combines bench and clinical work, is a good case in point. The Lyme infection rate is climbing around the country; the number of new cases reported each year is about triple the rate from 20 years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since that first “lucky” project, conducted during a fellowship at Tufts Medical Center, his lab has studied the interaction between the Lyme-causing pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi and host organisms, the development of Lyme arthritis, and other topics. As vice dean, Hu intends to continue his research and one of the projects in the works is an attempt to prevent human transmission of Lyme disease by developing a vaccine for the field mice that spread it.

How close are scientists to eradicating Lyme disease? “Eradicate is a strong word,” Hu said. “I’d say we’re probably 10 years away from getting it under control.”

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