Ralph A. Tripp, Ph.D.
Vaccine and Therapeutic Development
The University of Georgia
Like most scientists who study infectious diseases and how to prevent them, Ralph Tripp has logged plenty of hours in front of a microscope.
But as an internationally recognized expert in developing vaccines and disease therapies, Tripp is also known for his insights into the bigger picture — the relationship between viruses and their human hosts. His discoveries have helped him and colleagues around the world develop more effective treatments for a range of diseases.
Tripp’s research has revealed how viruses steal genes from their hosts in order to thrive. Many viruses “hijack” genes – to disarm the immune system or turn it against the patient instead of the virus. Tripp investigates vaccines and antiviral treatments that prevent respiratory viruses from seizing control of that genetic machinery. These precisely targeted therapeutics have the potential to be more effective than conventional approaches.
Tripp is especially interested in a few major respiratory viruses that fit this paradigm, such as influenza virus and respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV). For some – particularly children, older adults and people whose immune systems are compromised – these illnesses can be deadly. They are also hard to prevent because the viruses rapidly mutate, producing multiple variants in a season. The flu vaccine needs to be updated annually, and to date, there is no vaccine for RSV.
Using novel approaches, the Tripp lab is developing vaccines for both influenza and RSV. For example, Tripp’s UGA team is working with the University of Liverpool to develop a universal flu vaccine that employs a nanoscale delivery platform created from the membranes of bacteria. Their vaccine uses the stem of the hemagglutinin (HA) molecule of the influenza virus, which mutates less than other parts of the virus, potentially conferring longer-lasting immunity. The nanoscale delivery platform could enable the vaccine to be administered via the patient's mucus membranes (such as in the nose).
The Tripp lab is also investigating therapeutic monoclonal antibodies as an alternative to vaccines. These could be administered to patients to confer immediate immunity without waiting for a vaccine.
As tough as influenza virus has been to tackle, RSV is even tougher. The disease is particularly effective at hijacking the patient’s immune response to gain an advantage. After more than 70 years of research, no vaccine has been successful against RSV.
The Tripp team has developed an RSV vaccine that takes a slightly different approach than earlier attempts. Previous vaccines were designed to confer immunity against the RSV fusion or F protein. But these attempts were not effective in preventing symptoms. Tripp’s vaccine instead targets the attachment or G protein, which plays an essential role in regulating the immune system as well as enabling the virus’ infection.
A serial entrepreneur, Tripp has also turned his expertise toward preventing the spread of infectious disease in animals. His startup Hypercell, backed by GRA, is developing more effective and affordable ways to treat and prevent illness in livestock, using tools like monoclonal antibodies.
Finally, Tripp’s team is focused on developing diagnostics that provide more efficient and more reliable ways to test for disease in both humans and animals. For example, his team is developing an improved diagnostic for coronavirus that health professionals could use without special equipment or training.
- Determining the mechanisms of immunity and disease pathogenesis associated with respiratory viruses (influenza and RSV) and enteric viruses (poliovirus, rotavirus, norovirus)
- Understanding host-pathogen interaction for RSV, influenza, poliovirus, rotavirus, and norovirus
- Creating field diagnostics to detect influenza and coronavirus
- Applying RNAi High-Throughput Screening to study virus-host interface and identify already-approved drugs that can be repurposed for disease intervention
- Creating a field diagnostic to detect RSV infection in animals
- Developing vaccines that enhance immunity to respiratory viruses
- Developing monoclonal antibodies that provide immunity to respiratory viruses
- Developing universal mucosal vaccines
Working with the NIAID Southeast Regional Center for Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance.
“The facilities here at UGA, and the collaboration with colleagues here, are fantastic. It’s very important to have that infrastructure, and that’s what got me here. The GRA also invested in $2 million upgrade to UGA’s Animal Health Research Center, which covered the purchase of sophisticated technology for research and commercial development.”