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Renowned virus hunter Erica Ollmann Saphire to lead La Jolla Institute for Immunology

Erica Ollmann Saphire has been named chief executive of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.
(Courtesy)

She will continue to run a lab that’s a global clearinghouse for antibodies that fight COVID-19.

Erica Ollmann Saphire, a biologist known internationally for her efforts to fight deadly viruses such as Ebola and the virus that causes COVID-19, has been named president and chief executive of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, one of the country’s foremost private biomedical research centers.

Saphire, 49, will succeed Mitchell Kronenberg, who has led LJI for nearly 20 years. He will remain as chief scientific officer.

Saphire’s appointment takes effect Sept. 1. She will continue to run her lab, which serves as a global clearinghouse in the search for antibodies that might be effective against COVID-19, which has killed more than 2.6 million people worldwide.

A local scientist is leading a search for antibodies in the fight to provide immunity from the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Saphire said she accepted the promotion because LJI has a broad and deep focus on how disease can affect the human immune system — a threat that has been crystallized by COVID-19.

“The immune system finds and destroys individual cancer cells before you are aware that they are there,” Saphire said. “That’s a power that you can harness if you understand it.

“There are also devastating auto-immune diseases that cause things to go awry. We don’t know all of the triggers and causes. I think a lot of the great advances that are going to improve on this are going to come out of [LJI].”

The institute, founded in 1988, is part of a large national community of centers whose basic research has helped lead to scores of drugs and vaccines, including the vaccines now being used against COVID-19.

Saphire earned her doctorate at La Jolla’s Scripps Research in 2000 and made a series of important breakthroughs, including figuring out the structure of a protein that enables the Ebola virus to enter cells — a finding that has aided pharmaceutical companies.

She also made key findings about b12, an antibody useful in fighting HIV.

In 2019, Saphire announced that she was leaving Scripps for LJI, saying, “New colleagues, new ideas, new opportunities.”

The La Jolla Institute for Immunology is a winner in XPrize’s $6 million rapid COVID-19 testing competition.

That same year, she was chosen to lead an international consortium of scientists that explores viral diseases, including Ebola and Lassa. It’s being underwritten with up to $35 million by the National Institutes of Health.

In 2020, Saphire was appointed to head a similar consortium developed to look for antibodies to fight COVID-19. It’s supported by $1.73 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Immunology is something that wasn’t well-understood by the public,” said Saphire, who is studying for an MBA at UC San Diego. “Now, all the eyes of the world are on it. It’s because of COVID-19.” ◆