Jamestown native leads tuberculosis research
A Jamestown native and graduate of Jamestown High School is leading a research project with a goal to develop a vaccine for tuberculosis.
Dr. Kevin Urdahl, a 1983 graduate of Jamestown High School, is a professor and researcher at Seattle Children's Hospital and the Center for Global Infectious Disease Research. He is now heading an international consortium of researchers that received a seven-year, $83 million grant to study how the human immune system works regarding tuberculosis in order to develop a more effective TB vaccine.
"The vaccine in use for a century (for tuberculosis) is largely ineffective," he said. "We need to do better. If it was easy to make one, we'd already have one."
Immunity to tuberculosis in the human body works differently than immunity to other dis
eases, Urdahl said.
"We need to understand that difference," he said, describing the aim of the research.
Tom Olson, a retired science teacher at Jamestown High School and coach of the science fair program in the 1980s, said Urdahl took on tough subjects even in high school.
"He worked with insect growth regulators," Olson said, referring to one of Urdahl's science fair projects. "In 1983 we didn't have insect growth regulators even in the commercial markets."
Olson said insect growth-regulating chemicals are now commonly used in products such as the larvacides used to reduce the number of mosquitoes that hatch from standing water.
"Olson inspired me," Urdahl said. "I fell in love with doing research. I left high school knowing I wanted to do research."
Olson said Urdahl was one of his more memorable students involved with the science fair program even if his sister did outscore him in one year's competition.
"He (Olson) likes to mention that," Urdahl said with a laugh. "She went into social work and is doing great things in that field."
Urdahl graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead in 1987 and continued his education at the University of Minnesota where he earned an M.D. and Ph.D. He completed a residency in pediatric medicine while continuing his work in research.
"Somehow, through medical school and graduate school, I discovered tuberculosis," he said. "... it is a difficult thing to solve."
After years of working in the lab, Urdahl said he is now directing research.
"For this consortium ... that means coordinating research at many sites across the world," he said.
The work of researching and coordinating research is something he has wanted to do since his days in Jamestown High School.
"I knew I wanted to be a scientist because I was having too much fun doing science," Urdahl said. "I don't know if I saw myself doing tuberculosis research back in high school, but I wanted to do something important."
Urdahl said his interest in science started in high school but came from more than attending science classes.
"To me, it is more than science education," he said. "It is the experience of doing science fairs as Tom (Olson) presented them. That is really what science is about."
Tuberculosis kills about 1.5 million people each year around the globe, Urdahl said. A vaccine developed by another lab that is 50% effective is currently moving to large-scale testing and could save millions of lives over time even though it isn't an ideal solution.
"I'm convinced we can do better than that," he said.
That goal may take 20 years or more to accomplish, Urdahl said.