Awards Programs Award Winners Gillian Air

The 2017 Rosalind Kornfeld Award for Lifetime Achievement in Glycobiology

Donald L. Jarvis1
Secretary, Society for Glycobiology, Department of Molecular Biology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071 USA
The Society for Glycobiology is pleased to announce Dr. Gillian Air as the recipient of the 2017 Rosalind Kornfeld Award for Lifetime Achievement in Glycobiology2. The Rosalind Kornfeld Award was established in 2008 to honor the distinguished scientific career and service to the Society by Dr. Rosalind Kornfeld. The award is given by the Society to scientists who have made significant contributions with an important impact on the field of Glycobiology over their professional lifetimes.

Dr. Gillian Air (George Lynn Cross Professor and Interim Chair of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Associate Dean of the Graduate College, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK) trained as a protein biochemist during graduate school in Australia before moving to Cambridge to sequence phage proteins with Fred Sanger and colleagues at a time when women were infrequently found working as biochemists. She returned to Australia to transition to the study of influenza viruses, eventually focusing on the major surface glycoproteins, which are the hemagglutinin and the neuraminidase. The significance of their interactions with terminal sialic acids for viral virulence was known at the time and continues to be of profound interest to this day. Upon moving to the University of Alabama, Gillian implemented new methods in cDNA and protein sequencing to pioneer studies on the evolution of influenza antigenic drift and selection, in collaboration with Robert Webster and Graeme Laver. Both topics were and are highly relevant to vaccine development. Gillian also brought expertise in molecular biology to a highly fruitful collaboration with X-ray crystallographer Ming Luo and chemist Wayne Brouillette to develop a structure-based approach for discovering new neuraminidase inhibitors. Their best inhibitor had sub-nanomolar affinity and, after further medicinal chemistry at Biocryst Pharmaceuticals Inc., it was approved by the FDA and commercialized as injectable RapiVab (Peramivir). Gillian also used the inhibitors to investigate the role of the neuraminidase in infection, and found a role in depleting sialic acid from virus might be more pertinent than a role in host cell surface remodeling to inhibit reinfection.
Gillian’s move to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Center for Medical Glycobiology in 1996 enabled a new focus on the influenza viral hemagglutinin. She applied her vast knowledge of flu virus lineages to correlate evolutionary changes in serology and sialic acid specificity with pathophysiology. Expanded through the use of the Consortium for Functional Glycomics (CFG) Core H glycan microarray, her research revealed many glycan features beyond the linkage of terminal sialic acids contribute to recognition. She also found specificity changes can be better explained as a loss of promiscuity than a gain of novel recognition. She established herself as a thoughtful and respected authority on the multifactorial basis of host cell glycan involvement in virulence, viewed through the lens of evolutionary variation. She also expanded her studies to include parainfluenza viruses, which have a combined neuraminidase/hemagglutinin, and characterized the balance between the two activities of the single active site.
Gillian has contributed foundational and penetrating ‘basic science’ thinking and objectivity that will be essential for the future development of advanced inhibitors and vaccines that might someday control influenza pandemics. Her 187 publications document a remarkably productive >50 year career. Her work in viral glycobiology was supported by an NIH R01 grant entitled "Glycoconjugates in viral pathogenesis” from 1982 to 2008 and she held an R37 Merit Award and additional NIH grants during most of that period and beyond. Though she recently closed her lab, Gillian continues to serve as a consultant and mentor on NIH grants. In addition, she was and is a community builder. While at Alabama, she directed two training grants and directed a protein core laboratory. She has been a perennial grant reviewer for NIH, where she tirelessly defended the importance of discovery in addition to translational research at NIAID. She was Subgroup 1 (Microorganism recognition of host glycans) leader in the CFG and helped organize three NIH and CFG workshops/symposia on glycan arrays. She was on the editorial boards of Virology and the Journal of Virology for many years and continues to serve for Glycobiology and BMC Virology. She was elected a Fellow of the AAAS and now serves as Secretary of the AAAS Medical Sciences Section. She has been highly sought for advice on various national and international advisory boards and committees for NIH, FDA, hospitals, and companies. She has had no less positive impact at home, where she was appointed as George Lynn Cross Research Professor – the highest research honor that can be bestowed on OUHSC faculty.
Gillian has been a tenacious yet superlatively fair-minded investigator, courageously forging her way as a woman scientist across three continents to leave an enviable record, which has moved the field forward in many ways. The 2017 Rosalind Kornfeld Award for Lifetime Achievement in Glycobiology recognizes Gillian’s monumental accomplishments and tireless advocacy for glycobiology, which are excellent reflections of the spirit of Rosalind Kornfeld.
1 To whom correspondence should be addressed: email,
2 Drs. Christopher West (University of Georgia) and Thierry Hennet (University of Zurich) are gratefully acknowledged for contributing the bulk of the writing in these essays.