Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Katherine O'Brien, M.D.
MSA SC 3520-17120

Biography:

Dr. Katherine O’Brien relates her work in medicine, epidemiology, and immunology to social justice. It is a connection that seems indirect at first, but, after reviewing Dr. O’Brien’s long list of  achievements, seems obvious. As a pediatrician specializing in pneumococcal bacterium and vaccines, she has striven to not only innovate within her field, but to also share the important findings of these innovations with the world by advancing global vaccine initiatives. In other words, Dr. O’Brien does not just help in the creation of a cure, but also makes sure anybody, no matter their nationhood, socioeconomic level, race, gender, etc., has access to this cure. She says that,

“Every parent, everywhere in the world wants their child to have a life of opportunity – it doesn’t seem fair, or just, that some kids have the benefit of receiving vaccines and others don’t, by the quirk of where they happen to be born. My work is about [ensuring] not only that we have the best vaccines possible for preventing as much disease as possible, but also that the benefit of those life-saving vaccines should be available to all kids around the world regardless of where they were born, or whether their families can pay.”1

Dr. O’Brien wears many hats: she is a researcher, a clinician, an advocate, a teacher, and a health policy maker with a focus in pediatrics and vaccines. Though she is responsible for many things, she is first and foremost driven by a mission to ensure the health and happiness of children around the world.

Dr. O’Brien was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in 1963. She earned her medical degree from McGill University in Montreal at only 25 years old. She moved to Baltimore, Maryland, for a residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s pediatrics department, where she stayed until 1991. Dr. O’Brien then travelled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti for a children’s health project on HIV transmission.2 Upon returning to Baltimore in 1992, she simultaneously began earning her master of public health degree at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) and her subspecialty training in pediatric infectious diseases for two years. After completing her degree and her training in 1994, Dr. O’Brien found her niche in the field. She went on to serve the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as an Epidemiologic Intelligence Officer in their Bacterial Respiratory Diseases Branch from 1995 to 1997.3 4

In this time, Dr. O’Brien was honored with several national awards for her considerable leadership during a pediatric health crisis in Haiti. Despite the charged atmosphere of a nation undergoing consistent political unrest, the nation focused its attention to putting an end to a mysterious medical emergency that developed when over 30 children died of kidney failure at the same hospital from the winter of 1995 to the summer of 1996, and no common ailment had been found. Though invitations from Haiti requesting international assistance did not come quickly, the Pan American Health Organization, which had an office in Haiti, quickly stepped into dialogues with the United States CDC about this life-threatening epidemic. Because of her previous service with Haiti and her specialization in pediatrics, Dr. O’Brien was elected by the CDC to travel to Haiti and help with the medical investigation. Dr. O’Brien arrived in the troubled nation with, at this point, 84 confirmed cases of children with kidney failure. She worked with the local doctors to trace a history of the crisis, examined the children admitted to the hospital, and ran experiments to identify what they had deduced to be a poison. Dr. O’Brien was trying to find a clear diagnosis for the renal failure symptoms so that she could more accurately define a cause. With her CDC team, and assistance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they determined, after a couple of very long weeks of scientific and medical efforts, that it was diethylene glycol poisoning from contaminated pain reliever drugs that were making the children sick. Upon finding the poisoning agent, Haiti issued a widespread, international recall of the drugs, and legal investigations quickly seized hold. Without O’Brien’s diagnosis, children all across Haiti could have been poisoned and died without the necessary treatment. Not only this, but many of the hospitals were administering the tainted drugs, and, unbeknownst to them, poisoning these children. Dr. O’Brien’s commendable leadership and teamwork during this international health emergency earned her awards from the FDA, CDC, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.5 6

Upon her return to the U.S. after her brief, but pivotal work in Haiti, Dr. O’Brien continued her work with the CDC. Here she continued to work in her research speciality, and became one of the leading scientists in the field of pneumonia. After her service with the CDC, she returned to the JHSPH as a junior faculty member in 1998.

In her time with the JHSPH, she studied the pneumococcus, a bacterium that is the leading cause of pneumonia, meningitis, bloodstream infections and other life-threatening diseases.7 The World Health Organization (WHO), a branch of the United Nations (UN) and one of the leading global health agencies, reports that pneumococcal diseases are a major international public health problem. In 2000 alone, WHO estimated that there were about 14.5 million episodes of serious pneumococcal diseases resulting in the deaths of about 826,000 children.8 With her team of researchers, Dr. O’Brien has described the epidemiology, disease burden, immunology, and pathogenesis of the pneumococcal bacterium in numerous publications and reports. Her team’s groundbreaking findings were crucial to the creation and licensure of one of the first pneumococcal conjugate vaccines in 2000. While there had been other pneumococcal vaccines developed for adults, O’Brien’s work led to a conjugate vaccine (a vaccine that uses a combination of different components to issue a stronger response) that was meant for children, one of the populations most threatened by pneumococcal diseases.9 Many studies, including many that O’Brien has conducted, have shown how the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine has dramatically decreased the number of children who have contracted some of the most deadly childhood diseases due to the pneumococcus.10 WHO now recommends the highest prioritization of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine in national medical programs.11

Dr. O’Brien has also worked with JHSPH’s Center for American Indian Health (CAIH) as their Associate Director. Her research with the CAIH was critical in the efforts to test the effectiveness of the pneumococcal vaccine, and thereby necessitate both its production and affordability. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) estimates that between 800,000 to 1 million child deaths per year are caused by pneumococcal diseases, with many of these deaths centralized in developing countries. These numbers put major pressure on researchers like Dr. O’Brien who need to justify the mass production and potential low cost of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine.12  Navajo and White Mountain Apache children have some of the highest rates of invasive pneumococcal disease documented in the world and also belong to a population that is commonly associated with low socioeconomic status. Dr. O’Brien and her team’s research with this population was crucial to ensuring the well-being of these tribes, innovating upon the vaccines available, as well as continuing to support the need for further low-cost distribution of the vaccine. The first pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, “Prevnar,” was licensed through O’Brien’s testing with the CAIH.13 For this outstanding research, Dr. O’Brien received the Young Investigator Award in 2008 from the Sabin Vaccine Institute, a medical research and advocacy organization that focuses on creating global networks to cure preventable diseases through vaccine development, advocacy, and education.14

Dr. O’Brien’s international recognition in the study of the pneumococcus is only fitting as her work often has global implications. Her attention to every aspect of the vaccine research has been critical to ensuring that her overall mission to help children all over the world, not just in the U.S., is seen through. The need for a more nuanced scope of research derives from the fact that different countries require different types of pneumococcal conjugate vaccines to treat the diseases that are most prevalent or unique in the area; thus, research is required to craft these different types of vaccines. Once a vaccine is created, researchers must also prove the need for the vaccine, the effectiveness of the vaccine, and thus demonstrate the financial need for a certain amount of the vaccine to be produced.15 Not only this, but many developing countries, often those most affected by pneumococcal diseases, did not fully accept that pneumococcus was an important fact of disease in their country. By providing detailed documentation of the impacts of the pneumococcus, Dr. O’Brien was able to change the opinions of many countries, which has also led them to redirect resources toward the funding and implementation of the pneumococcal vaccine in their health policies.16 Dr. O’Brien’s work covers the whole timeline of a disease and its vaccine. She documents the cause of the disease and its vaccine-related solution, and she also helps implement policies that allow people to more easily access the vaccine at low costs. O’Brien has said that “… each time a country launches pneumococcal vaccine it is a proud moment because it is an on-going living expression of the value of the work that we have been doing. It becomes something real for me that there are infants and children whose lives have been saved by those vaccines…”17 Dr. O’Brien’s thorough oversight of vaccines, including research, development, and policy, enables high production, lower costs, and easier accessibility for people around the world. For the major accomplishments she has made so early in her career, Dr. O’Brien was awarded the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in 2011. PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government for science professionals in the early stages of their career who pursue innovative research at the scientific frontier and who are also committed to serving their community.18

At Johns Hopkins University, Dr. O’Brien advanced vaccination research and eased access by collaborating with her colleagues on an international initiative called PneumoADIP, or Pneumococcal vaccines Accelerated Development and Introduction Plan. This project began in 2003 and was funded with a $30 million grant from GAVI in order to increase developing countries’ access to the pneumococcal vaccines through research, private and public partnerships, policy making, education, and local action. In other words, PneumoADIP would see vaccines from their research and development stages to the localized implementation stages. Dr. O’Brien was Deputy Director of Research for PneumoADIP. Dr. O'Brien remarked of PneumoADIP and its unique position as a global health project using a top-down method within Johns Hopkins University that, “Through that project we envisioned a place within the [Bloomberg] School [of Public Health] that worked on vaccines from a multi-dimensional perspective and brought together skills and domains that go beyond the traditional science or academic ways of working.”19 PneumoADIP successfully brought together multiple interests, ranging from economics to immunology, in its mission to provide a complex and thorough vaccination program for developing countries, replete with educational resources and affordable vaccines. In its final year, the project was actually ahead of any historical precedent in its successful spread of vaccines throughout developing countries. PneumoADIP provided such a successful foundation for increasing global access to vaccines that it evolved into the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at JHSPH in 2008. 20 IVAC does work similar to PneumoADIP in that it is a multi-faceted organization that researches, makes public and private partnerships, and creates grassroots operations to ensure the widespread use of vaccinations. IVAC, however, works on a broader scale, focusing not just on pneumococcal disease, but on other preventable diseases affecting the world. After teaching and researching with Johns Hopkins for 20 years, Dr. O’Brien was named the executive director of IVAC in 2012.21 In that same year, Dr. O’Brien was also invited to work with the WHO’s Scientific Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) in their immunization branch because of her expertise in infectious diseases and her commitment to global health. She continues to be an active member of SAGE, and often collaborates with experts from around the world to solve global health problems.

Dr. O’Brien was also promoted as a professor with Johns Hopkins in 2010. It’s important to note that among the many accomplishments and roles Dr. O’Brien has had, that she is also training classes of students to continue the public health work she is doing. Dr. O’Brien sustains the incredible human rights work that she undertakes everyday by inspiring young minds to do the same, as well as instilling values of both scientific rigor and compassion for humanity.22

In 2014, Dr. O’Brien was honored by the 2014 International Symposium on Pneumococci and Pneumococcal Diseases (ISPPD-9) as the Robert Austrian Lecturer. Robert Austrian Lecturers are honored for their outstanding and sustained contributions to the field of pneumococcal disease. This award highlights Dr. O’Brien’s huge range of work, from her efforts to broaden scientific knowledge to her teaching and mentoring of junior colleagues.23

To highlight Dr.O’Brien’s major accomplishments, you need a very large highlighter. Although still early in her career, Dr. O’Brien has also published over 130 original scientific publications, as well as numerous textbook chapters, invited papers and commentaries. 24 She has led many students and young scientists toward a career in public health and medicine. She has been integral to the advancement of pneumococcal vaccines and their use throughout the world. She is a champion for the health and well-being of children around the world. For making our world a better place to live, she is honored in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.


Endnotes:

  1. Kelly Healy, “A Conversation with Dr. Kate O’Brien,” IVAC Blog, 19 November 2012, http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/ivac/IVACBlog/A_Conversation_with_Dr_Kate_OBrien. Return to text.

  2. Suzanne White Junod, “Diethylene Glycol Deaths in Haiti,” Public Health Reports 115 (2000): 78-86. http://europepmc.org/backend/ptpmcrender.fcgi?accid=PMC1308559&blobtype=pdf. Return to text.

  3. Dr. Katherine O’Brien’s Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination Packet. Return to text.

  4. Junod, “Diethylene Glycol Deaths in Haiti.” Return to text.

  5. Ibid. Return to text.

  6. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  7. Kate O’Brien. “Kate O’Brien Interview on Pneumonia Study on Global Disease Burden,” YouTube video, 1:47, posted by “WorldPneumoniaDay,” 22 September 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duP6-_SYioE. Return to text.

  8. “Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals: Pneumococcal disease,” World Health Organization, last updated October 11, 2011, accessed 8 June 2015, http://www.who.int/immunization/topics/pneumococcal_disease/en/. Return to text.

  9. “Pneumococcal Disease,” The History of Vaccines, accessed 8 June 2015, http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/pneumococcal-disease-0. Return to text.

  10. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  11. “Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for childhood immunization - WHO position paper,” Weekly epidemiological record 82, no. 12 (2007): 93-104. Return to text.

  12. “Pneumococcal vaccine support,” GAVI: The Vaccine Alliance, accessed 8 June 2015, http://www.gavi.org/support/nvs/pneumococcal/. Return to text.

  13. Katherine O’Brien, Lawrence Moulton, Raymond Reid, Robert Weatherholtz, Jane Oski, Laura Brown, Gaurav Kumar, Alan Parkinson, Diana Hu, Jill Hackell, Ih Chang, Robert Kohberger, George Suber, Mathuram Santosham, “Efficacy and safety of seven-valent conjugate pneumococcal vaccine in American Indian children: group randomised trial,” The Lancet 362, no. 9381 (2003): 355-361. Return to text.

  14. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  15. “The Pulse - Combating Pneumococcal disease - 17Dec07 - Ep8 - Pt1,” YouTube video, 11:03, posted by “Al Jazeera English,” 23 December 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnMOvQ9lgwc. Return to text.

  16. “Robert Austrian Lecture,” The 9th International Symposium on Pneumococci and Pneumococcal Diseases, accessed 8 June 2015, http://www2.kenes.com/isppd2014/scientific/Pages/RobertAustrianLecture.aspx. Return to text.

  17. Healy, “A Conversation with Dr. Kate O’Brien.” Return to text.

  18. Moira Vahey, “Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators: President Obama Honors the Nation’s Cutting-Edge Scientists and Engineers,” Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog, 15 August 2014, accessed 8 June 2015,  https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/04/15/inspiring-next-generation-innovators-president-obama-honors-nations-cutting-edge-sci. Return to text.

  19. Healy, “A Conversation with Dr. Kate O’Brien.” Return to text.

  20. Kathryn Graczyk, “Orin Levine’s Exit Interview,” IVAC Blog, 20 September 2012, accessed 8 June 2015, http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/ivac/IVACBlog/keyword/ivac?from=6&to=10. Return to text.

  21. Tim Parsons, “Johns Hopkins International Vaccine Access Center Names New Executive Director,” IVAC News, 4 October 2013, accessed 8 June 2015, http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/ivac/about-us/news.html#Kate_ExecDir_PressRelease. Return to text.

  22. Nomination packet. Return to text.

  23. “IVAC’s Executive Director, Kate O’Brien, Honored as the Robert Austrian Lecturer for ISPPD-9,” IVAC News, 12 March 2014, accessed 8 June 2015, http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/ivac/about-us/news.html. Return to text.

  24. “Robert Austrian Lecture.” Return to text.

Biography written by 2015 summer intern Amelia Meman.

 

Return to Dr. Katherine O'Brien's Introductory Page


 
 
 


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