George Liu, M.D., Ph.D., is one of the most recent additions to the Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego family. After growing up in Africa, earning his medical education in both San Diego and the United Kingdom, and honing his clinical and research expertise in Los Angeles, the newly minted chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases brings globally reaching experience and vision to his role. To welcome Dr. Liu back to San Diego, we sat down for a “Getting to Know” interview spanning his fascinating research into antibiotic-resistant bacteria, where he sees the future of infectious disease care going, and the fruit-filled soccer games of his childhood (you’ll see).
What does your role as division chief entail?
The Division of Infectious Diseases, established by Dr. John Bradley and Dr. Steve Spector, has traditionally provided exceptional clinical care to children. My primary mission is to continue and expand on that tradition.
Going hand-in-hand with clinical care is education and the division’s fellowship program. We would like to expand our fellowship program and make San Diego a top choice for anyone who is thinking about training in pediatric infectious diseases.
What led you to focus your career on infectious disease?
I grew up in Africa. I had malaria approximately 5 –10 times. Therefore, a career in infectious diseases makes sense.
What brought you to Rady Children’s? Are there any specifics you can speak to in terms of your vision for the hospital’s future in infectious disease care and research?
I came to San Diego because, in Rady Children’s, we have an exceptional clinical program, and our partner, UC San Diego, has many of the finest researchers in the country. I think if we fully integrate the two, this could be the best children’s hospital in the country.
At Rady Children’s, patients are already receiving state-of-the-art medical care. I would like to see more clinical trials and research conducted that bring about cutting-edge treatments for hard-to-treat conditions. Ultimately, I would like to see Rady Children’s as a place that children from all over the world come to for the most advanced treatments.
You’ve done quite a bit of research into methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). What has been your most surprising or interesting discovery along the way? Realistically, how close are we to realizing the kinds of therapies you hope to create?
The overarching aim of our research is to bring about a vaccine against MRSA, which is a cause of severe infection and also a culprit for the spread of antibiotic resistance.
The most surprising thing about staph vaccine development is that there are many vaccines that are successfully developed in laboratories, none of which have worked when tested in humans. The latest one was the $500 million Pfizer vaccine program that uses four promising staph antigens. It was recently discontinued in phase 2b of a clinical trial (during which trials assess safety and effectiveness) because of poor efficacy, but there isn’t a clear reason why the efficacy was lacking. So, the focus of our lab has been to find out why all vaccines have failed in humans. Only then can we make a vaccine that works. We are on to something exciting that I hope to be able to share with you next time around.
Where do you think the infectious disease field is going in terms of other exciting innovations? What’s on the horizon in terms of treatments?
One exciting emerging area in the infectious disease field is improved diagnostics. This is fueled by the advent of genomics, and we will be able to detect pathogens better than we have ever been able to. This is quite exciting as this will allow health care professionals to treat infections better and more precisely, and the Rady Children’s Division of Infectious Diseases is leading the way.
In terms of infectious diseases treatment, the emergence and spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens has been of tremendous concern since we are beginning to see pathogens that are resistant to just about all antibiotics available. There have been antibiotics developed in recent years that promise to slow down these pathogens, but ultimately, I think this likely is a losing war. The bugs always win when it comes to developing resistance to new antibiotics. So, future approaches will need to focus on the use of very specific, narrow-spectrum antibiotics rather than broad-spectrum antibiotics, guided by precise and rapid diagnostics, to limit the spread of antibiotic resistance.
So, what is on the horizon? Less antibiotics is more. The last decades have taught us a lot about our gut bacteria, the so-called gut microbiome. The bacteria don’t just sit there; they contribute to our health. When broadly perturbed by illnesses or antibiotics, they affect the development of children’s immune systems, body mass indexes and long-term susceptibility to all kinds of diseases. While using antibiotics may make us feel better (psychologically), when we aren’t sure we have a bacterial infection that can be treated with these medications, we may end up paying a price in the long run. I think ongoing studies of the microbiome, at Rady Children’s and at other institutions, will guide us on how to use narrow-spectrum antibiotics in a savvy way.
What has been your favorite place you’ve traveled and why? Where would you like to go next?
I loved Dublin. When I visited, I met so many genuinely nice people, and some part of the city reminded me of what Europe probably looked like in the early 1900s before it became overly commercialized.
During the next decade, I’d like to visit Galapagos because it’s linked to Darwin, the father of evolution biology. Bhutan is also on my list because it’s a place where the secret to happiness can supposedly be found.
If you had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?
Japanese, ramen noodle to be specific. I grew up with it. I am a creature of habit.
You’re stuck on a desert island and can only bring one movie, one book, and the music from one band or artist. What are you bringing?
“Castaway” starring Tom Hanks, “War and Peace” and “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. Maybe not really …
What are some of your favorite pastimes?
Spending time with my family. I love spending time with my five year old. If you have ever read the comic book “Calvin and Hobbes,” she is a bit of a Calvin and I am the dad.
What is something unique people may not know about you?
I grew up in Africa, in the Cote D’Ivoire to be specific. There was television channel that showed one or two hours of programming each week. We used coconuts instead of soccer balls.