Westmont Magazine Battling the Bordetella Bacteria
Research by biology professor Steve Julio ’92 could contribute to a new vaccine for whooping cough
A resurgence of whooping cough, once nearly extinct, has created headlines in recent years. The disease poses the greatest danger to infants, but it also threatens teenagers and young adults in their 20s.
Biology professor Steve Julio ’92 conducts ongoing research on bordetella, the bacteria that causes whooping cough. “I seek to understand how bordetella colonizes the respiratory tract and hope to identify genes required for it to grow there,” he says. “We need better basic research about how the bacteria affects people so we can design a more effective vaccine.”
Students assisting him have discovered a gene that’s required for the bacteria to establish itself, a finding with distinct, practical applications. They plan to submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal.
Most people get vaccinated against whooping cough as an infant, but the protection only lasts so long, perhaps 10 years. Julio says scientists’ goal is to create a new, improved vaccine that could prevent the illness during the teenage and young-adult years and lessen its incidence.
Whooping cough has reemerged as a serious illness because fewer children are being vaccinated. It only takes a handful of unprotected people for the bacteria to spread. Because the disease had practically disappeared, some parents incorrectly assumed there was no danger. Others feared the vaccine causes autism.
“Scientific studies on the link between vaccines and autism are inconclusive,” Julio says. “There is no smoking gun pointing to a causal connection; in fact, there are strong data suggesting no such link exists. Even if it does, however, it is vastly less probable that a child will develop autism than that they will contract a very serious illness.”
Julio made sure his four daughters, ages 5-13, were vaccinated against whooping cough, and he recommends the Boostrix vaccine for all teenagers.
The challenges of developing a new vaccine inspire Julio. “I love the enterprise of scientific discovery,” he says. “To me, nature is like a puzzle; it’s something to figure out and decipher. Doing that as a biologist, dealing with complex living organisms in the context of what life is all about, is especially meaningful.”
On his application to Westmont, Steve listed his interests as cell biology and genetics. Two experiences in college propelled his decision to pursue biology as a career. He assisted Professor Frank Percival in independent research and learned that he liked working in a lab. In Professor Dave Marten’s organic chemistry class, Julio synthesized an organic compound from scratch. “There was no lab manual and no recipe,” he says. “I had to figure it out myself. It was very hands-on and challenging, and I loved it.”
After graduating from Westmont, Julio earned a doctorate in microbiology at UC Santa Barbara. He went to work in the lab of a start-up company that hoped to develop a vaccine for cancer. When it folded two years later, he did a post-doc at UCSB for two years and that’s when he began working with bordetella. He jumped at the chance to return to Westmont as a professor when he heard about an opening. “It’s where I developed my interest in biology, and I wanted to work with the people who nurtured me,” he says. He joined the faculty in 2006.
“Working at Westmont is the best kind of challenge,” Julio says. “It’s a multifaceted job that includes teaching, doing research and contributing to the college’s mission.”
Julio’s wife, Cheryl Yoder Julio ’92, shares his passion for science; she teaches mathematics at Santa Barbara High School.
Now a mentor himself, Julio works closely with students like Ji Yei Kim ’11, who spent her summer assisting him in the lab. “Undergraduate research is a prominent and important part of our program,” he says. “It trains the brain to think a certain way and prepares students to be scientists — and any other profession they may choose.”