School of Medicine

Sean Whelan to be head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology

Dear Faculty, Staff and Students:

I am so pleased to announce that Professor Sean Whelan has accepted the position of head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology, effective January 1, 2020. Sean is currently Professor of Microbiology, Chair of the Program in Virology and Director of a Center of Excellence in Translational Research at Harvard Medical School. Sean will become the Marvin A. Brennecke Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and continue the tradition of world-class leadership that has characterized the department and microbiology research at Washington University for many decades.

A molecular virologist, Sean has focused his research on the mechanisms by which negative-sense RNA viruses, such as rabies, Lassa and Ebola viruses, enter cells with the overall thesis that these mechanisms can be used to target more effective therapeutic interventions for potentially lethal agents and to advance our fundamental understanding of how our cells are penetrated by microbes. He began this work as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Gail Wertz with the seminal innovation being development of a system for expressing infectious vesicular stomatitis virus from cDNA clones. This system has proved essential for VSV-based gene therapy vectors and vaccine development but also to generate VSV pseudotypes carrying the envelope proteins of other viruses and so the system represents a breakthrough for studying the pathogenic behavior of a number of viruses. Using this approach, Sean has identified the cellular proteins used as receptors by Ebola, Lassa, and Lujo viruses, identified attachment factors of extinct viruses including human endogenous retrovirus K, and defined the pathway that rabies virus uses to enter neurons. Identification of the cholesterol transporter Niemann-Pick C1 as the Ebola virus receptor defined for the first time a critical viral receptor buried on an intracellular membrane. His work on Lassa virus implicated a unique mechanism involving LAMP1 as well as the previously identified alpha-dystroglycan receptor to infect cells.

His laboratory focuses on two other areas. First, his work has led to breakthroughs in understanding mechanisms of gene expression by the negative-strand RNA viruses, in particular providing detailed structural characterization of the VSV polymerase and later the rabies virus polymerase. This work has also led to an appreciation for the mechanism by which the polymerase of the highly pathogenic Machupo virus copies each of its two RNA segments in the correct proportions. Second, Sean’s laboratory has used VSV to identify host genes that facilitate replication of viruses within cells and this work has led to new targets for antiviral drugs.

Sean was born in England, attended University of Birmingham and then did his PhD at University of Reading. After his postdoctoral fellowship at University of Alabama at Birmingham and a brief stint on the faculty, he took his first tenure-track faculty position at Harvard Medical School in 2002, rising to the rank of Professor in 2012. He has been well-funded by NIH, including a MERIT award in 2015. He has been recognized as a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and was awarded the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator of the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease. He is currently Associate Editor of PLoS Pathogens, Editor of Virology, Editor of “Fields” Virology and serves on the Editorial Board of Journal of Virology. He has been a member and chair of the Virology study section at NIH. He holds three patents and currently four provisional patent applications. He is broadly revered as a teacher, mentor and speaker in the US and globally.

We are thrilled that Sean will take on this important leadership role and continue his scientific career here, complimenting the extraordinarily talented community of microbial and immunological researchers across many departments at Washington University School of Medicine. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Shabaana Khader for her wonderful work as Interim head of the Department over the past months and until the end of this year. Please join me in welcoming Sean and thanking Shabaana.


David H. Perlmutter MD
Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs
Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor
George and Carol Bauer Dean, School of Medicine