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Working at CSU

Right place, right time, studying the right organism

March 8, 2010
By Carol Borchert

Ian Orme, professor of microbiology, immunology and pathology, found himself in the right place, at the right time, and studying the right organism when tuberculosis rates began to rise in the mid-1980s, in concert with the asyet-unidentified human immunodeficiency virus.

Ian Orme, a University Distinguished Professor, "flunked out" at being a pro soccer player.

TB re-emerged in the 1980s

In the early 1980s, Ian Orme was hard at work at the Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake, New York, N.Y., investigating intracellular bacteria including Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Not vogue by the standards of the time, and not considered a real health threat anymore in the United States (though worldwide this was not the case), tuberculosis was getting ready to re-emerge on the national health stage.

Orme found himself in the right place, at the right time, and studying the right organism when tuberculosis rates began to rise in the mid-1980s, in concert with the asyet-unidentified human immunodeficiency virus.

The increase in infection rates was coupled with the appearance of multidrug-resistant forms of tuberculosis. The disease once considered conquerable was back with a vengeance and would shape the course of Orme’s career for years to come.

Early ambition was to become a professional soccer player

Adopted by a working-class couple in England, Orme’s father was a bricklayer and his mother worked at a grocery store. His father died when he was 12 and times were not easy. After graduating from high school, he worked at a soda factory and then got a job at the Children's Hospital in London where he trained as an entry-level laboratory technician. However, his main ambition was to become a professional soccer player.

“I flunked out at that, and needed a better plan so I started to go to night school to get a technical degree,” said Orme. “The head of the department where I worked was a worldclass immunologist, a fledgling science at the time, and he would patiently answer my questions and show me things in the laboratory that I was curious about. He encouraged me to continue my education and I began attending the University of London in 1974.”

Worldclass immunologist happened to be his boss

Because of his night schooling and laboratory work, Orme had a leg up on other students and graduated with a First Class Honors Degree in physiology. One of his professors recommended him for a prestigious scholarship at the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company, where he completed his doctorate degree in immunology.

Orme decided to move to the United States to pursue his scientific endeavors, obtaining a post-doctoral position at the Trudeau Institute, where he began to write a series of papers on the host immune response to M. tuberculosis. When he accepted a position as an assistant professor in 1986 at Colorado State University, research programs in tuberculosis were on the upswing.

Accepted position at CSU in 1986

Ian Orme and his colleagues have improved our understanding of how the TB bacterium functions in the lung.

Orme partnered with Patrick Brennan to create the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology. Brennan was interested in the bacteria itself while Orme was focused on host response, resulting in a highly successful partnership. In 1992, the laboratory received a tuberculosis vaccines material contract followed by a TB drug screening contract in 1993. Both contracts are still active.

During his 23 years at Colorado State University, he has received more than $80 million in extramural funding, from the NIH and, more recently, from the Gates Foundation.

Define the TB host response

“We continue to try to define the host response, but also have come up with a couple of interesting vaccine candidates as well as new drugs with the potential to greatly improve the outcomes of TB treatment protocols,” said Orme.

“We have taken the existing models and really pushed forward to improve our understanding of how the TB bacterium functions in the lung. We are expanding our studies with a guinea pig TB model, which is similar to human TB, and proving important in TB drug and vaccine testing."

Hope for post-exposure vaccine

Orme said that though the battle against TB has been long and arduous, he has hope that a post-exposure vaccine will be developed and given along with a combination of potent new drugs to help in the fight against the increasing incidence of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

“We partner with institutions around the world in tuberculosis research, especially big epicenters like southern Africa,” said Orme. “Even though rates of tuberculosis are on the decline again in the United States, the disease is on the increase in India and China where HIV rates of infection are increasing as well.”

Accomplished scholar and mentor

In addition to his extensive work in tuberculosis, with some 280 papers published in scientific journals, Orme has had more than 40 people come through his laboratory for training and graduate work. Approximately 50 percent of those individuals now serve as assistant professors or higher in peer academic institutions.

Orme has been nominated as Best Teacher and was honored with a Scholarship Impact Award from Colorado State University in 2004. He was elected to Fellowship of the American Academy of Microbiology in 2002, and most recently received the University’s highest honor, selected as University Distinguished Professor in 2009.

People worked with through the years, most rewarding

“I am most proud of the incredible individuals who have come through my laboratory,” said Orme. “It is very gratifying to know that when I am gone, they will be here to carry on this important work. My research work has been fulfilling and productive, but it is the people who I have met and worked with through the years who have made this endeavor ultimately so rewarding.”

Originally published in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Fall 2009 Insight newsletter.