Juan Pablo Hernández-Ortiz, Ph.D.
Professor of Materials and Nanotechnology, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Medellín
Director, Colombia/Wisconsin One-Health Consortium
Honorary Associate at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, and The Biotechnology Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
What are you and your institution currently working on regarding COVID-19?
The Colombia/Wisconsin One-Health Consortium, at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, contributes to the COVID-19 pandemic from three different fronts: (i) viral genomic surveillance, (ii) quantification of the infection- and vaccine-induced immunity, and (iii) PCR diagnostics and active surveillance for high-risk populations. We do directed sampling of immune-compromised, traveling, out -of-norm, and critical patients to perform whole genome sequencing analysis to generate profiles of key mutations and variants of concern. We are currently following a cohort of vaccinated and now-recovered patients to quantify and qualify humoral and cellular immune responses at 3, 6 and 10 months post viral or vaccine challenge. We have performed more than 25 thousand free PCR diagnostic tests to reach communities and communicate the realities of COVID-19 in order to demystify the pandemic. We have conducted active surveillance for high-risk populations and health personnel for more than 7 months. We are currently quantifying viral content of wastewater in the Metropolitan Area of Valle de Aburrá to identify a potential source of COVID-19 outbreaks and transmission in the cities. The One-Health Genomic Laboratory is a part of the COVID-19 Diagnostic and the Genomic Surveillance Networks from the National Institute of Health, and we are the part of the COVID-19 crisis and vaccination committees of the Gobernación de Antioquia.
Please elaborate on some specific cases of your current COVID-19 research interests?
One of our major premises is the use of genome analysis to detect and characterize viral pathogens in our region. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how powerful and necessary it is to establish a robust genomic surveillance in countries where infectious and re-emerging diseases are a constant burden to public health. Concomitantly, we want to understand and measure how the immune system confronts viral mutations, thereby delineating future vaccine strategies that will facilitate safe economic and social re-openings of our communities. The quantification of humoral (IgG and neutralizing antibodies) and cellular (CD4 and CD8 T cell activity) immune responses will elucidate the timeline for induction and duration of the adaptive immunity, and provide insights into the possible mechanisms for disease severity. It is important to understand whether virus-specific CD8 T cells provide protection or if they can be detrimental for severely ill COVID-19 patients.
Juan Pablo Hernandez-Ortiz is a Professor at the Department of Materials and Nanotechnology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Medellín. He is the co-director of the Colombia/Wisconsin One-Health Consortium and the One-Health Genomic Laboratory. Professor Hernandez-Ortiz received his Mechanical Engineering Degree from the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellin, Colombia in 1998. He did his Ph.D. studies, in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Chemical Engineering, at UW-Madison. In 2004, he started his postdoctoral training at UW-Madison in Chemical and Biological Engineering. In 2007, he joined the Department of Materials and Nanotechnology as an Assistant Professor and became the youngest person to become a Full Professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in 2013. He has authored and co-authored more than 95 articles and advised 16 graduate students. His field of action in biophysics and molecular engineering started several years ago and it was centered on designing devices for an efficient and high-resolution presentation of long DNA molecules towards single-molecule genome analysis and nematic-based biological sensors. During the last decade, Professor Hernández-Ortiz has dedicated his research efforts in guided molecular engineering towards personalized medicine platforms for infectious diseases, cancer, and tropical pathologies. He has established fever clinics, disease monitoring and whole-genome viral surveillance in multiple regions of Colombia, including Cucuta, Cali, Medellin, Villavicencio, and Leticia. The current diseases attended by his group are arboviruses (Dengue, Zika, Chikungunya, and Yellow Fever), influenza, SARS-CoV-2, and solid-tumor cancer diseases.
About the Colombia/Wisconsin One-Health Consortium
The CWOHC provides a unique opportunity for UW, Colombian, and international institutions to demonstrate leadership and have an impact in viral diseases affecting both human and animal health in Latin American countries. Co-directorships from Professor Jorge Osorio, from UW-Madison, and Professor Juan Hernandez-Ortiz, from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, have synergize into an unprecedented platform for interdisciplinary work towards personalized precision medicine and genomics as the baseline to confront public health threats. Professor Osorio is a global expert on the study of emerging viral diseases and has conducted field and laboratory studies on many emerging pathogens, including dengue, Zika, chikungunya, influenza, rabies, west Nile, enteroviruses, Monkeypox among others. Professor Hernandez-Ortiz created novel models and computational algorithms towards multi-scale guided molecular designs that leverage long-DNA molecule manipulation and bio-sensors. The CWOHC is home of an intra- and inter-disciplinary group of professors, researchers, and graduate students, with a focus on health problems from the One-Health perspective. The main premise of the CWOHC is a coordinated, cross-sectional, and ecological effort that combines several proxies of experiences and effectiveness in the different levels of genetics, epidemiology, diagnostic and molecular engineering, virology, and bioengineering. Currently, the CWOHC counts with 15 full time scientists, logistics and quality experts, and houses more than 30 graduate students and 15 undergraduates from multiple disciplines. The One-Health Genomic Laboratory (OHGL) contains 2,850 sq. ft., it satisfies the BSL-2 norm and it is built-ready to become a BSL-3 level of biosafety. At the LGOH, good laboratory practices are rigorously enforced, thereby following all rules for waste disposal and pathogen manipulation. The lab is fully equipped for virus research, including capacities for cell viral isolation, real time PCR, sample preparation for nucleic acid sequencing, next generation sequencing (NGS), ELISA, multiple immunoassay (Xmap), plate testing, hemagglutination, Inhibition of hemagglutination, culture titration, among others. The OHGL is among the few laboratories in the region with local sequencing capacities that range from short RNA viruses to whole human genome analysis, incorporating Oxford NanoPore – GridION – and Illumina® – MiSeq and NextSeq 2000 – technologies.