Research scientist Bobby Brooke Herrera, renowned for developing tools to accelerate diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, has joined Rutgers Global Health Institute.
Herrera, a Rutgers Presidential Faculty Scholar and an assistant professor of global health at the institute, conducts multidisciplinary research on epidemic viruses and infectious diseases and holds joint appointments in the Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine and at the Child Health Institute of New Jersey. Both are part of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Herrera is known for his bench-to-bedside translational research. His laboratory at Rutgers focuses on understanding adaptive immunity against globally relevant pathogens that cause lethal human diseases and for which there are limited options for treatment or vaccination.
He has developed diagnostic testing related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 disease, the Zika virus, and the rare but often deadly Ebola virus disease. Collaborating internationally with research scientists in Brazil, Nigeria, and Senegal, his academic and industry work has received more than $9 million in grant funding, including support from the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as venture capital financing.
Disease outbreak preparedness and response motivate and drive Herrera’s research, which incorporates approaches in epidemiology, immunology, molecular biology, and virology. He seeks to uncover new knowledge about human immune responses that will spur fundamental advancements in disease diagnostic capabilities and vaccine design. Herrera is studying asymptomatic viral infections, which occur when an individual infected with a virus develops little to no symptoms of disease, to better understand the human antibody and T cell responses in such instances.
“I hope that my research group at Rutgers will contribute to a foreseeable expansion of vaccines or therapeutics for infectious diseases in the decades to come, with particular focus on deciphering, at the molecular level, what may make some antibodies or T cells more effective than others,” Herrera said. “There are many hypotheses as to why that happens, and why some people develop disease symptoms and some remain asymptomatic. It could be genetics, immune status, environmental factors, or reasons related to the virus itself. These are questions I’m interested in pursuing in my academic lab. The knowledge we produce can lead to better, more personalized diagnostics as well as more potent therapeutics for these viruses.”
Herrera has investigated various dynamics of asymptomatic human infections by mosquito-borne viruses, including the flaviviruses Zika and dengue as well as the alphavirus chikungunya. His findings indicated that human transmission of Zika and dengue viruses in Nigeria and Senegal occurred in absence of robust disease outbreaks. He later developed a diagnostic tool, which he tested as part of a study in Brazil, that could distinguish between infections by distinct virus strains. Also in Nigeria, Herrera’s research demonstrated that individuals who experienced asymptomatic infections by Ebola virus could produce T cell responses that were greater in magnitude when compared with survivors of severe Ebola virus disease; subsequent research recovered and characterized monoclonal antibodies from Ebola virus infections. These outcomes suggest that specific immune system functions may protect against severe Ebola virus disease, which has important implications toward vaccine development.
The importance of detecting, preventing, and treating infectious diseases is relevant throughout all demographics and sectors of societies, but it is especially pronounced in vulnerable populations, where social and environmental determinants of health contribute to widespread disparities. Herrera is motivated to improve global health by translating his bench-to-bedside research to accelerate the development of diagnostic and therapeutic tools that will improve health care for all.
Herrera, originally from New Mexico, received a doctoral degree in biological sciences in public health at Harvard University and performed postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. Since 2019, he served as a visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He cofounded two biotechnology startup companies and was named to the “Forbes 30 under 30” list for health care in 2020.
Rutgers Global Health Institute is actively recruiting for multiple open-rank faculty positions to accelerate our role in addressing urgent issues in global health. Searches are underway for faculty positions in Cancer Care and Prevention in Sub-Saharan Africa; Global Health; and Health Equity, Social Justice, and Population Health. Learn more at globalhealth.rutgers.edu/hiring.