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The COVID Scientists

Galit Alter: Connecting scientists to speed up the COVID-19 fight

By encouraging other researchers to share their work, Alter opened doors to new kinds of collaboration.

Galit Alter is a professor at Harvard Medical School and a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Galit Alter is a professor at Harvard Medical School and a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.
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Galit Alter usually spends her time pinpointing how the human immune system responds to diseases, but in March she took on a new role: arm-twister. “What I basically started doing was e-mailing people 50 times a day to get them to agree to do a five-minute talk,” says Alter, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard Medical School and a researcher at the Ragon Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Alter, 43, began her cajoling as coleader of one of the working groups for the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, which gathered hundreds of scientists, clinicians, and public health experts across the state and in China. Her section of the program includes 185 scientists looking at how exactly the SARS-CoV-2 virus causes disease and how our immune systems respond. “I literally made every single person in this consortium present [research],” she says.

Scientists often labor in isolation and are not always eager to share their work, except when publishing or presenting at a conference. They do collaborate, but, “There’s never been a collaboration around a single pathogen. Ever,” Alter says. “This many people dropped all of their research and put all of their attention on one single virus. That is unprecedented.”

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But the stakes were clear, and, in early April, her group members began giving weekly talks. After reports of children suffering from a COVID-related inflammatory condition similar to Kawasaki syndrome, a specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital presented the latest findings on it. A genomics expert at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center shared research on the genetic traits of people with different blood types, which might explain why some patients are more resistant to the virus than others.

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Alter’s own research focuses on why some patients’ immune systems fend off disease but other patients succumb. Her team has developed a unique technology to profile antibody response. Having worked on HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and malaria, she pivoted to COVID-19 in January before Boston hospitals had seen their first patients. A colleague in Seattle sent Alter patient samples that her lab began evaluating, looking for the antibodies best able to beat the disease.

Alter thinks disease research will be fundamentally changed by the experience of this year. “People started realizing that [by sharing,] it’s enriching their research more broadly,” she says. “It’s led to collaborations that never would have happened. It is crystal clear that the more we break down the barriers to collaboration, the faster science goes.”

PLUS MORE STANDOUT SCIENTISTS:

Lindsey Baden: Taking action on multiple fronts against COVID-19

Ashish Jha: Speaking out for science and for public health in the pandemic


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Jessie Scanlon is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.