Dr. Jo-Anne R. Dillon

Professor, Dept. of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Saskatchewan and Research Scientist, Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) - International Vaccine Center (VIDO-InterVac) Saskatoon, SK
Researcher of the month: 
Jul 2014

Fighting the comeback of sexually transmitted diseases

Gonorrhea is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the world, and it’s making a comeback due to emerging antibiotic resistance (AMR). Physicians can no longer use a single magic bullet to eradicate it; they now must use a hail of antibiotics to shoot it down.

The world needs two new weapons to get back into the fight against this widespread STD, says Dr. Jo-Anne Dillon. It needs a fast, effective detection kit for the pathogen and its antibiotic resistance and a safe, effective vaccine.

Dillon is a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Saskatchewan and a Research Scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon, SK.

“Almost all the research that I do – whether it’s public health-oriented, dealing with the frequency of resistance in various regions around the world, or more basic, such as discovering mechanisms of antimicrobial action or transmission patterns – connects to an overall theme of antimicrobial resistance.”

Dillon also focuses her boundless energy on researching the molecular epidemiology and bacterial cell division mechanisms of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the microorganisms that causes gonorrhea, and other pathogenic bacteria.

She is a pioneer in this field who has earned the respect of her peers worldwide as a research scientist, public health advocate and gifted administrator of scientific programs.

A passionate scientist

As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Jo-Anne Dillon had “absolutely stupendous” teachers in microbiology. They ignited a passion that shifted her interest from chemistry and physics to bacterial genetics. She began to read voraciously about pioneers in microbiology. After graduating, she made pilgrimages to Louis Pasteur’s birthplace and the World Health Organization (WHO) to “see what they did.”

She earned a doctorate in Microbiology and Immunology at Queen’s University. Her postdoctoral studies with Dr. Charles C. Brinton at the University of Pittsburgh focused on pili, hair-like structures on the surface of many bacteria, including Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Pili help bacteria to adhere to their intended targets and are involved in taking up DNA from the environment. They are an important part of the pathogenic machinery of an organism. Brinton was first to promote the idea that harmless pili might be ideal vaccine antigens to use against bacterial diseases.

Pili turned out not to be good vaccine candidates against gonorrhea, Dillon points out, because they shift their characteristics so frequently that any vaccine against pili alone is rendered useless within a very short period.

“I got started in the Neisseria world in Dr Brinton’s laboratory,” Dillon recalls. “I found the organism endlessly fascinating, and I’m still not bored with it.”

She developed a passion for studying bacteria at a time when DNA technology was rapidly evolving. Eager to share her knowledge and expertise, she co-authored Recombinant DNA Methodology, one of the first textbooks on the topic, and taught molecular technology to clinicians, long before such courses were routine in medical schools.

Throughout her career, Dillon has balanced the role of administrator with her passion for basic research. She has influenced the structure of both public health and medical research institutions in Canada.

In 1975, she became Chief of the Antimicrobials and Molecular Biology Division, Laboratory Centre for Disease Control, the first laboratory in Health Canada to use recombinant DNA methods. She was founding director of the National Laboratory for Sexually Transmitted Diseases based, at that time, at the Laboratory Centre for Disease Control – Health Canada (Ottawa).

Dillon was the first female President of the Canadian Society of Microbiologists. She established and still runs the WHO’s Gonococcal Antimicrobial Surveillance Program (GASP) in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In 1994, she became Chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry at the University of Ottawa. She was founding director and head of the university’s Center for Research in Biopharmaceuticals and Biotechnology. In 2001, Dillon accepted a position as Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

“The entire time that I held those administrative positions, I maintained my research profile,” she says. Dillon strongly believes that basic research, advocacy and administrative service are foundations for better health.

As President of the International Society for STD Research (ISSTDR), Dillon once spoke about the value of service. “It’s part of how I define myself as a scientist. Service work is complementary to my research, and it will always be a key part of what I do,” she says. “It's a driving force in my life. Basically, helping others, even though they might not know that you're helping them, is a real driver for my research and public health activities.

“As research scientists, we constantly wonder about the future impact of our work. In my case, the short-term impact is knowledge about antimicrobial resistance and the development of tests that can detect it or specific pathogens. The long-term impacts are policies for better health, new laboratory procedures, novel discoveries and better training methodologies.”