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A Curious Mind: Dr. Bill Gruber in the Spotlight
September 22, 2016
For Dr. Bill Gruber, seeing Saturn’s rings was the spark that ignited a lifelong passion for science.
“That was a pivotal moment – I realized this is something I really like to do. I was around five years old when my family took me to a local church yard to see Saturn through a telescope. I still get excited like I did when I was a young boy to discover something new, with the added value now of knowing that our new discoveries of vaccines have the potential to improve health for children and adults throughout the world.”
Armed with encouragement from his mother, a zoologist, Dr. Gruber’s curiosity flourished, leading him to compete in the Greater Houston Science Fair in middle school. Inspired by his childhood memory and the space race in the sixties, Dr. Gruber built his own telescope, performed astrophotography, and took home second place in Earth Science at the fair, an experience he still recalls fondly.
“My hometown of Houston was always rainy so my father had to drive me out to west Texas to be able to see clear sky through the telescope. I was lucky to have great support from my parents. I often serve as a judge in science fairs today – you would be amazed at the intellect at these events. There are sophisticated projects and ideas in biology coming from young students.”
Over time, Dr. Gruber left no stone unturned – studying physics, math, biochemistry, and biology, and eventually attending medical school and practicing as a physician and pediatric infectious diseases specialist. Through the years he treated patients, worked in academic laboratories, conducted clinical investigations, taught both medical and graduate students, and ran a viral diagnostic laboratory. Now at Pfizer, Dr. Gruber oversees all clinical research and development of vaccines. His team of scientists and researchers, along with the support of a larger group of Pfizer colleagues, manage all global Pfizer vaccine licensure trials from phase one through phase four post-marketing regulatory commitments, in the hopes of preventing disease around the world.
A father of four and grandfather of two, Dr. Gruber uses his curiosity and experience to help develop vaccines that have the potential to protect children and adults against infectious diseases. While Dr Gruber completed his residency at a children’s hospital, he worked on a drug to treat respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is the most common cause of wheezing and pneumonia in children younger than one year of age and can lead to infant death.1 The drug was sometimes delivered through a ventilator (breathing machine) in children who had to have a tube inserted in their trachea to help them breathe, leaving the children completely at the mercy of the machine. Dr. Gruber discovered the drug was actually creating a malfunction due to crystallization of the drug in the ventilators, risking serious harm to the infants. “We got all the children off of the experimental medicine immediately, but I could not stop thinking – there has to be a better way to deal with RSV disease.” Thus began a quest for an RSV vaccine that Dr. Gruber has pursued with academic and Pfizer colleagues for over 30 years. How gratifying it is that Dr. Gruber and his Pfizer colleagues are currently engaged in development of a potential new breakthrough vaccine to prevent RSV.
Dr. Gruber’s and the talented team in Vaccine Research and Developments recent focus is to help stop the spread of healthcare-associated infections, which continue to plague hospitals and clinics. In the United States, the germ Clostridium difficile caused an estimated half a million diarrheal infections in 2011 alone, resulting in 29,000 patient deaths within 30 days of diagnosis. 2 Another common infection, Staph Aureus, varies greatly between patients but can turn deadly if the bacteria invade deeper into the body, entering the bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. Staph is often the culprit behind endocarditis, a life-threatening infection of the heart’s inner lining, and sepsis, which occurs when bacteria invade the bloodstream and can lead to septic shock, a life-threatening episode with extremely low blood pressure.3 Dr. Gruber is most eager to continue his work in the hopes of discovering and testing vaccines that can prevent common hospital infections.
“Just as our pneumococcal conjugate vaccines have had a major impact in reducing blood stream and other pneumococcal infections, I look forward to the possibility that we may soon show that a Pfizer vaccine can prevent hospital acquired C. difficile and Staph Aureus infections. The ‘holy grail’ for me would be to open up the possibility of immunization before or during pregnancy to prevent RSV, Group B Streptococcus – the most common serious cause of bacterial infection in infants, and Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a major cause of mental retardation, birth defects, and deafness in children. I plan to work and live to see each of these prevented by a vaccine we help create."
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection.” Accessed 24 June 2016. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/about/infection.html (link is external).
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Healthcare-associated infections.” Accessed 24 June 2016. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hai/organisms/cdiff/cdiff_infect.html (link is external).
3 Mayo Clinic, Staph Infections. Accessed 5 August 2016. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/staph-infections/basics/complications/con-20031418 (link is external).