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URMC / Pathology & Laboratory Medicine / Read Our Blog / January 2018 / UR Alum Seeks Solutions to the Problem of Strep

UR Alum Seeks Solutions to the Problem of Strep

About James Musser, MD, PhD

Dr. James Musser
Career – Joined Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Methodist Hospital (1991-99). He then led the Laboratory of Human Bacterial Pathogenesis for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH, at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana (99-03), and returned to Texas to work at Houston Methodist Hospital and Research Institute (2004-present).
Current - At Houston Methodist Hospital he is the Fondren Presidential Distinguished Endowed Chair, Chair of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine, and Director, Center for Molecular and Translational Human Institute.
Hometown – Originally from Bellefonte, PA and now lives in Houston, TX.
Family – Wife, Dr. Camille Leugers, a family physician (also a University of Rochester graduate and former resident). They have two daughters, Sophie, 23, and Grace, 23, and one dog, Biscuit.
Education – Earned his MD, PhD from University of Rochester (1988). He spent the following year doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Penn State University, continuing research on bacterial pathogenesis and population genetics with Robert K. Selander, previously of the UR Department of Biology. His residency training was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. James Musser is a distinguished pathologist who got his start at the University of Rochester as a medical student. To this day, he is quick to give credit to the University for putting him on the right career path.

“One of the crucial themes in my career—and I really think in large part it is because of the University of Rochester—has been the desire to work across traditional academic boundaries to weave together seemingly disparate biomedical research areas,” he said. 

His laboratory uses molecular pathology, microbial pathogenesis, and population genomics in its approach to important infectious disease problems. Chief among these problems is Group A Streptococcus, the culprit behind strep throat and so-called “flesh-eating” disease (necrotizing fasciitis).

There is currently no licensed vaccine for Group A Strep, which can lead to life threatening illnesses if left untreated. The World Health Organization reports that 700 million cases of infections are caused by the pathogen every year worldwide. These range from common infections like strep throat to more severe infections like necrotizing fasciitis or rheumatic fever.

Musser has devoted much of his career to understanding how Group A Strep causes human infections at the molecular level. He and his research colleagues aim to lay the groundwork for a licensed vaccine for strep throat and its more serious iterations. This is easier said than done.

Group A Strep has many genetic variations that Musser likens to different makes and models of cars; there are different kinds of Fords or Toyotas, and each is built differently. And in the same way some models can go faster than others, the Group A Strep pathogen contains different combinations of genes that allow more severe diseases to spring forth under certain conditions. These genetic varieties have made it difficult for a reliable vaccine to be developed despite decades of research.

“We have a lot of unfinished business,” Musser said. “We still really need to understand all aspects of how the organism causes human epidemics. These are long term problems that are likely to persist well into the future.”

Musser’s early career began at Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital in Houston, where he moved up through the traditional academic ranks from assistant to full professor. In 1999 he was hired by the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). There, he was tasked with significantly upgrading and developing new areas of research at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, in Hamilton, MT.

One of his contributions at RML was the introduction of genome-scale investigative strategies and helping to plan a biosafety level 4 laboratory, a so called “hot zone” laboratory.” This Integrated Research Facility houses scientists that study infectious microbes with the goal of finding new ways to treat diseases like ebola, zika, flu strains, and so forth.

Musser resumed working for the 8-hospital Houston Methodist Health System in 2004 where he wears many hats. As chair of Pathology and Genomic Medicine, he divides his time between clinical responsibilities, research, and overseeing a department of 65 faculty.

“Everyone is very busy in academic medicine these days,” he said of his workload. “I don’t think that I’m doing anything especially unique in that regard.”

He was first drawn to the UR because of its signature biopsychosocial model of disease.
“I knew that the UR was the right place for me because it had its head on right about how medical students should be taught, and emphasized the critical importance of biopsychosocial factors in human illness and daily interactions,” said Musser.

UR is also where he met his future wife, Dr. Camille Leugers, and the two remain active in the UR alumni organization in Houston, recently hosting 35 UR graduates at their home. 

Musser has returned to the UR since walking the halls as a student. He recently came back to give the Whipple lecture, named after the Medical Center founder and Nobel Prize-winning pathologist. He was also bestowed the Rous-Whipple Award by American Society for Investigative Pathology. This award, whose name is also a nod to his alma mater, is given to a scientist who has worked to advance the understanding of disease.

Looking back, Musser is thankful for the many mentors he encountered at UR along the way, including Ron Yasbin (Microbiology), Marilyn Menegus (Pathology), Bernard Panner (Pathology), and Frank Young (Dean of the School of Medicine), to name a few.

“I believe there are mentors all around us,” he said. “I firmly believe that if we talk less and listen more, they will appear.”

Bethany Bushen | 1/22/2018

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