Dr. Florence Haseltines resume is robust, if not intimidating: She has attended and taught at world-renowned universities, and received awards for championing womens health and advocating for womens rights. Most recently, she transformed the North Texas Genome Center at the University of Texas at Arlington into a COVID-19 testing facility for students.
Haseltine, 77, leveraged her personal connections, built on 27 years of working at the national level, to make sure that the center has the supplies necessary for testing. And that will promote her aspirations for the center: to study why the novel coronavirus appears to affect men more than women.
From a young age, she was determinedly curious about the differences between men and women. I kept asking my father, who was a scientist, why there are two sexes, and he tried hard to explain it, she said. I kept bugging him so much that finally one day he threw up his arms and said, When you grow up, you figure it out.
Haseltines career has centered on this question she asked her dad. After studying at the University of California at Berkeley and MIT, and getting her M.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, she trained as a reproductive endocrinologist and researched in vitro fertilization at Yale University. Her work helped couples struggling to have children. The Yale Fertility Center was one of the first clinics in the U.S. to offer in vitro fertilization.
In 1985, Haseltine became the Director of the Center for Population Research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. Working there for nearly three decades, she helped increase federal funding for womens health research.
In 2018, a few years after Haseltines retirement, the president of UT-Arlington recruited her as a faculty member. The prospect of studying the human genome, or all of our genetic material, seemed like a perfect reason for her to return to academia.
Her career was influenced by her younger brother, William Haseltine. He developed some of the methodologies and technology used in genomics research as the founder of the biotechnology company Human Genome Sciences. It was clear if I was to make a second jump [in academia], it would be into the genome, she said.
When Haseltine first came to UT-Arlington, she planned to study why certain diseases affect men and women differently, and why, in some cases, one sex might suffer from more severe symptoms.
She thought that it might be due to differences between the sexes when it comes to some genetic information that determines our immune response. In particular, she wants to investigate a group of genes called human leukocyte antigens, or HLA.
HLA genes serve as an early warning for the immune system. These genes provide pieces of proteins made by foreign invaders, like a virus, to specialized immune cells that can then fight and eliminate the pathogen.
To proceed with the research, the North Texas Genome Center needed federal certification for processing human samples to diagnose, prevent and treat diseases. Last summer, Haseltine brought Anajane Smith, a researcher who studied HLA genes in Seattle, out of her own retirement to help the center get certified.
Haseltine knew Smith since the age of 6. They parted ways after college when she took a job on the East Coast and Smith took a position on the West Coast. Even after all this time, Smith jumped in to help when Haseltine needed her expertise.
With Smiths guidance, the North Texas Genome Centers officials got their required certification in January. Then the pandemic struck Texas and the university encouraged the centers director, Jon Weidanz, to shift the centers focus to testing for COVID-19.
Through personal relationships, Haseltine got the supplies necessary to test for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. She reached out to Dr. Mary Lake Polan, whom she had mentored at Yale University in 1975.
She has the ability to deal with people, so that, as focused as she is, she doesnt put them off, said Polan. They want to help her.
Polan is a board member of Quidel Corporation, a company that makes diagnostic healthcare products. Haseltine was able to get one of the companys SARS-CoV-2 assays or products that analyze COVID-19 tests the day that the assay was approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Then she needed to make sure that the assays worked with the UT-Arlington centers equipment. She needed the genetic material, or the RNA, of SARS-CoV-2 to test the assays.
She contacted Scott Weaver, a colleague from the Global Virus Network, an international coalition of scientists dedicated to managing viral diseases.
Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections & Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch, gave Haseltine some SARS-CoV-2 RNA from the universitys World Reference Center on Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses.
With Haseltines help, staff at the North Texas Genome Center recently ran their first successful assays. Staff started processing tests from student athletes this month, and will continue to do so every four weeks thereafter. Other students can be tested after they return to campus if they show symptoms. And students will have no out-of-pocket costs for testing, according to a UT-Arlington spokesperson.
Haseltine now has the opportunity to join other members of the scientific community in studying why SARS-CoV-2 seems to affect men more than women. Haseltine and Weidanz have a hunch that certain forms of some HLA genes could offer a protective role against COVID-19 in women.
Science can be an incredibly competitive field. So the amount of cooperation by scientists to work together and fight COVID-19 stunned many, including Haseltine. Ive had a lot of people help me in my life, but Ive never seen this level of cooperation, she said. Everybody wants to do whatever they can.
Gina Mantica reports on science for The Dallas Morning News as part of a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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