Tinkering in his million-dollar greenhouse at the University of Central Florida, microbiologist Henry Daniell is at work on preventing infectious diseases that kill 15 million people worldwide each year.
Inspired by the passion of French physicist Marie Curie, the UCF scientist focuses on taking the lowly lettuce leaf to new heights. In it, he sees the promise of a delivery system for vaccines that's durable and inexpensive.
Just since May, Daniell's projects have attracted grants totaling $7 million from such diverse groups as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Juvenile Diabetes and Research Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.
But more notable than the dollar amount is that the research he's pursuing could help eliminate or treat diseases that plague millions and — if all goes as hoped — as soon as the next three to 10 years.
"There's a very good possibility that what he's working on will become an alternative to today's vaccines," said Ted Klein, a plant biotechnologist for DuPont's industrial-research lab in Wilmington, Del.
Klein, a colleague of Daniell's for more than 15 years, describes the UCF researcher as "a driving, results-oriented scientist who pushes the envelope."
Bitten by passion bug
The passion to cure the world's ills started early for Daniell, who turns 60 next month.
In his small, paper-packed office in the corner of his large lab, Daniell has to move a stack of science journals from a chair to accommodate a visitor.
He extends a warm handshake with a broad smile, then talks about how it all got started.
Born in India, the youngest of 12 children, Henry Daniell was the son of a chief justice and a homemaker mom.
In high school, he came across a book about the life of scientist Madame Curie, who won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903.
"I was stunned that someone could make that passionate of a commitment," he recalled.
Daniell also saw a sadder side of life in his hometown of Madras, where residents frequently died of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera and malaria.
"You'd go by churches and see funerals, some with very small caskets, so you knew kids were dead," he said. "I was determined to do something about this, so I have been pursuing one question: How can I make a vaccine that's affordable? Once you get bitten by this passion, it sticks with you forever."
After receiving his doctorate in microbiology from the University of Madras, Daniell came to the United States in 1980. After a stopover at Auburn University, he came to UCF in 1998.
"UCF made me director of biotechnology and gave me a big lab," he said of the offer he didn't refuse. His research led to the formation of the university's first biotechnology company in 2003 and to dozens of patents, including seven this year.
"Henry is the classic example of someone driven to contribute," said M.J. Soileau, UCF vice president of research and commercialization. "You can't make people work as hard as he works. And he couldn't do that if he didn't think what he was doing was really important.
"He's one of our top performers by any metric."
One of the university's best-funded medical scientists, Daniell also is an endowed University Board of Trustee Chair.
While at UCF, Daniell, who is married with two sons in college, has devoted much of his research looking for ways to overcome the biggest barriers to worldwide vaccinations: cost and storage.
The fermenting equipment needed to make vaccines given today is expensive. Because most vaccines are injected, they require trained personnel to administer them and refrigerators to store them, which add cost and inconvenience. Plus, they expire, he said.
"I wanted to develop a vaccine that didn't need refrigeration or injection and could be stored for a long time at room temperature," he said.
A cheap nonshot
In his quest, he looked to plants, specifically lettuce, for the proteins they make. He figured out how to re-engineer their cells, then turn the dried leaves into pills that carry his immunizing proteins. Once ingested, they start making antibodies.
Among the vaccines he has made and successfully tested on mice are ones for malaria, tuberculosis, polio, cholera, anthrax, black plague and dengue fever.
"All we're doing now is determining the duration and dosing of the vaccines," Daniell said.
The Gates Foundation has assured him it will do what it can to help fast-track the vaccine for approval by the Food and Drug Administration, with the hope of making the vaccine available in two to three years.
A number of labs around the world are looking at ways to produce vaccines in plants, said Klein, and Daniell's lab is among those at the top. "He's made significant advances in this area, and his way might be among the simplest and most efficient."
Meanwhile, Daniell also is looking at ways to use the same delivery method to treat genetic diseases such as Type 1 diabetes.
His work attracted the attention of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation after his research on mice showed that his plant-based delivery method could trigger a defective pancreas to start making insulin again.
"When deciding who gets grant funding, the diabetes foundation relies on approvals from two national committees," said Martin Bernstine, executive director for the foundation's Central Florida Chapter. Both a scientific board and a lay committee review proposals.
"In this case, the committees independently determined that Henry's work was very promising and worth investigating and investing in," he said. "His work represents a brilliant way to potentially control or regulate and potentially reverse the autoimmune response in Type 1 diabetes."
Not all science
Besides earning the respect of those granting research funds, Daniell also has the respect of his students, though that comes more slowly.
Students in his lab quickly catch on to his demanding work style, said Roland Herzog, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida. Daniell was his mentor in the mid-1990s when both scientists were at Auburn University.
"He was a very rigorous mentor and demanded a lot," Herzog said. "The students I knew who were in his lab found it difficult to work with him initially but appreciated it later because he set them up for success.
"In that regard, he's an excellent mentor on par with faculty at top Ivy League schools. When you're with him, you're playing in the big leagues."
Outside the lab, Daniell can switch gears, said Herzog, 41. The two, along with scientists at Duke University, are collaborating on plant-based treatments for hemophilia patients — research that attracted grants from the NIH.
"He's not all science," Herzog said. "He can talk about sports or politics and won't in the next sentence fall back and start talking about his science project. He's very humorous and is a great person to have a beer with."
Still, by all accounts, Daniell is a workaholic.
"The only days I take off are Thanksgiving and Christmas," he said, adding that his wife helps manage his lab. Although he rarely takes a vacation, Daniell does travel to explore other cultures.
"When I wake up, I can't wait to put on my shoes and come here to see if we've solved a problem," he said. "That's a lot more exciting than sitting on a beach."
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An earlier version of this story misstated one of Henry Daniell's titles. He is a University Board of Trustee Chair, an endowed chair position which has no responsibility to serve on the Board of Trustees.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times