Sallie Permar, MD, PhD: FASEB Excellence in Science Mid-Career Investigator Award Recipient

Discoveries in Vaccine Research

Sallie R. Permar, MD, PhD, is Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and Pediatrician-in-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital. She is also the Nancy C. Paduano Professor in Pediatrics and Professor of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and Professor in the Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis Program at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences.

Permar is the recipient of the FASEB Excellence in Science Mid-Career Investigator Award, which recognizes her stellar track record in pediatrics and immunology research, most notably the prevention and treatment of neonatal viral infections.

Can you briefly discuss your background and what you do in your current role?

Permar: I am a pediatric infectious disease physician researcher focused on the development of vaccines to eliminate congenital and perinatal viral infections. I am currently the department chair of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and pediatrician in chief at NewYork Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital and lead an active research laboratory studying vaccines and immune protection against viruses such as HIV, cytomegalovirus, and SARS-CoV-2.

When did you decide to become an immunologist/vaccinologist? Were you inspired by someone (or something)? 

Permar: I decided to become an immunologist/vaccinologist at the peak of the HIV pandemic when I had the opportunity through my undergraduate institution, Davidson College, to travel to and volunteer in a mission hospital in a rural part of Zambia which was a region experiencing a high burden of AIDS and related diseases. The weight of the pandemic on the people and the community was overwhelming, and I surmised that a vaccine would be critical to eliminating the suffering and allowing communities affected to flourish again. While we and so many others are still working on a vaccine for HIV that could address the ongoing pandemic in addition to the highly successful antiretroviral therapies, the discoveries made in the field have fueled vaccine development and immunology advances in many ways, including the success of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.

Your nomination includes the research you’ve conducted and published. What drew you to this field of research? What do you wish to achieve with your research? 

Permar: I was drawn to the field of vaccine research to eliminate perinatal infections both through my motivation to pursue HIV research, which is perinatally transmitted inflation, but also through my training in pediatric infectious diseases. In my clinical training, I learned how frequently and devastating a congenital infection with a common virus, cytomegalovirus, could be on children’s health. While we have known about this congenital infection for more than 60 years, and it consistently infects 0.5 percent of all infants worldwide and leads to birth defects and brain damage, there is not yet an effective vaccine. Thus, my work now focuses on using highly relevant animal models and human cohort studies to define protective immune responses against perinatal infections, including HIV and CMV, and developing vaccines that elicit protective responses.

What discovery are you most proud of? Can you describe what you felt when you made that discovery? 

Permar: A discovery I am proud of is the development of a highly relevant model of congenital cytomegalovirus transmission in nonhuman primates using a primate CMV virus which has opened new opportunities for defining protective immune responses and vaccine testing to eliminate placental CMV transmission. I am hopeful that this discovery, along with our identification of immune responses associated with protection in human cohorts and novel vaccine platforms such as mRNA, will speed vaccine development for CMV, which has been underway for more than six decades.

What does it mean to you to receive the Excellence in Science Award? 

Permar: The Excellent in Science Award from FASEB is a highly meaningful award to me both based on its recognition of mentoring the next generation of researchers in addition to research achievements, as well as the esteemed women scientists who have previously been honored by this award.

What advice would you give to young women entering this field? 

Permar: I would advise young women entering the field to look out for collaborators who can both compliment your work and help you elevate the reach of your work, as well as make the work enjoyable. Reaching out across fields is a good strategy to create innovation and can take you in a new direction that you may have never seen coming.

Sallie R. Permar is a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, a FASEB member society.