Director of the Basic Sciences Core: Douglas Nixon, MD, PhD

June 01, 2014

Growing up in Cambridge, England provided a uniquely intellectual atmosphere for Douglas Nixon, MD, PhD to foster a deep interest in science. During undergraduate studies at University College London, his mentors encouraged him to explore immunology, pathology and virology, guiding him to Los Angeles as a summer intern, and then following medical school, to Oxford, England, for pathology residency and graduate studies. He wrote a graduate student grant to work on adenovirus immunology, which was funded. However, three weeks before he started working on his PhD, two papers came out about HIV-specific immunity. “My mentor said ‘You know, HIV might be a big problem. I think you should work on HIV immunology instead,’” recalls Nixon.

Nixon then began working in what would become one of the first HIV immunology research groups, led by Sir Andrew McMichael at Oxford. Despite academic success at Oxford, with a Special Research Fellowship at Merton College, a Senior Registrar position in clinical virology, and as clinical lecturer in medicine, Nixon felt that more could be done to translate basic research towards products. “Because immunology is so intimately linked with vaccine research, I became increasingly interested in wanting to make an HIV vaccine. I thought we were really in the position to try something,” he says. To further his work, he was recruited to a biotechnology company in New York, where he worked on HIV vaccines for three years. He then rejoined academic endeavors as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Rick Koup, and then led his own lab as assistant professor at ADARC/Rockefeller University.

In 2000 he joined the Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology/ University of California San Francisco, where he focused on studying cellular immune responses to HIV.

Recently recruited in 2013 to The George Washington University, Nixon is now Ross Professor of basic science research and Chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine (MITM). He has also taken on the role as the Basic Sciences Core Director of the District of Columbia Developmental Center for AIDS Research. “Having learned the importance of mentorship and collaboration over the years, Nixon hopes to continue to cultivate this here in DC. He notes, “Training and education of younger people is crucial.”

Nixon is also Chair of the NIH’s AIDS Vaccine Research Subcommittee, and continues his research to develop a vaccine. “HIV evolves so rapidly, that in order to make a vaccine to work against all variants of this virus, you have to come up with creative strategies,” he explains. His work explores how the HIV infection wakes up the fossil viruses within all of our genomes, and how that could be potentially exploited as a novel vaccine strategy.

Another of Nixon’s research areas investigates how bacteria in the intestines can alter immune responses toward HIV. “We’ve realized over the past few years that the bacteria in our intestines are absolutely critical, it’s really surprising. The way our immune system works is dependent on those bugs in the gut,” he says. The eventual goal is to manipulate the microbiome in order to change these immune cells and potentially help get rid of the virus altogether.

Nixon recognizes that his plans are ambitious, and that the only way to achieve them is to collaborate, as he learned from his own mentors. “We have important medical issues to work on, and I don’t think it’s going to be just one person who comes up with something to completely change AIDS. In reality, only a team can get us there.” He hopes that MITM will be a crucial part of such a team.