By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2015, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
My voice was raspy as I stepped into the 11th-floor office of Robert Welliver, M.D., at the University of Oklahoma Children’s Physicians tower on the Oklahoma Health Center campus. My nose was runny. I coughed as I sat down.
If I were seeking medical attention for my condition — diagnosed almost two weeks earlier as bronchitis — this would have been exactly the right place. Well, the right place if I were a few decades younger.
Welliver is chief, section of Infectious Diseases, department of Pediatrics at the OU College of Medicine and is on the staff OU Children’s Physicians.
However, it was merely serendipity that brought me to Welliver’s office in such a condition. I was there to interview him about his work in researching respiratory and influenza viruses as an OU physician, professor and scientist.
Welliver is part of an OU team working to develop a vaccine for RSV — respiratory syncytial virus — the bane of infants and their parents worldwide.
“Everyone gets RSV, but the major impact is in infants,” Welliver said. “It’s the most common reason for an infant to be hospitalized.”
Every year about 400 children are hospitalized at OU Children’s with RSV infections. That provides plenty of tissue samples that can be tested with potential vaccines.
“We get samples of secretions from them when they are ill, see what is in there and go back to our models and see if we can manipulate it, make this weaker or this stronger or what effect does this have on the disease,” he said. “The hope is that you will come up with a vaccine that will be a preventative.”
Welliver’s research team is working on its own potential vaccine through a grant from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), and also in a separate, sponsored research project for a pharmaceutical company.
Of course, for any vaccine to be effective, parents have to be willing to have their children inoculated. There is growing resistance across the nation to vaccines for both adults and children.
It’s a movement that Welliver dismisses for, well, lack of evidence.
“People are afraid of vaccines and they shouldn’t be,” he said. “I can tell you that the science behind it is overwhelmingly in favor of being vaccinated.”
Welliver came to OU in 2011 from Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. The opportunity to pursue scientific research in addition to treat patients and teach medical students was a big draw.
“I think OU is a great place for clinical care,” he said. “But what makes you, as a medical center, stand out is what you are doing to advance knowledge, testing and medication and developing new forms of treatment. We are building that here and it’s coming along pretty rapidly now.”
Our interview grew to a close. So I took a shot at what the doctor thought of my condition — without having to make a co-pay. He had seen and heard me for more than 30 minutes.
Apparently, my condition matched the flu virus, even though I didn’t test positive for it two weeks earlier.
“Flu is a nasty infection,” he said. “As you and I get older, our immune systems don’t clear the infection as quickly as it might.”
With that, I closed my notebook and with a cough backed out of the room. No handshake or knuckle bump. We waved goodbye.
Jim Stafford writes about the state’s life sciences industry on behalf of the Oklahoma Bioscience Association.