In Pursuit of the Best Science

In quiet labs on the outskirts of Flagstaff, a scientific revolution is going on, and David Engelthaler is right in the middle of it.

Engelthaler, Director of Programs and Operations for the Flagstaff-based non-profit TGen North, has assembled a team of biologists, geneticists, and analysts who spend every day pushing for scientific breakthroughs in battles against some of the nastiest infectious diseases in the world. The team’s accomplishments include:

  • sequencing the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) genome
  • developing a microarray test for the FBI that "fingerprints" the top 20 bio-terrorism threats in the world
  • identifying some of the first swine flu cases to hit Arizona
  • tracking the source of a cholera outbreak in Haiti to Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers
  • providing advanced genomics tools to assist with a deadly fungal outbreak after a tornado in Joplin, Missouri 

TGen North specializes in translating genomic discoveries for use beyond the laboratory. "At TGen North, I think we are doing something that nobody else in the world is doing," Engelthaler says. "There are some places that do some of the things we do, but we are unique in terms of our focus on making sure that we're taking the best discoveries and translating them into tools [like new diagnostics or drugs]."

A chance to make a difference

Engelthaler says his involvement with TGen North would not have happened without his connection to Northern Arizona University professor Paul Keim, who is world famous for his work in battling deadly diseases, and is also the Director of the Pathogen Genomics Division of TGen, home to TGen North.

Through virtue of their mutual interest in infectious diseases, the two connected early in Engelthaler's career as a public health professional. Later, when Engelthaler reached the position of Arizona state epidemiologist, Keim reached out with an opportunity to direct the start-up process for TGen North. Engelthaler eagerly accepted. It was, he says, a chance for him to make a difference in ways that he couldn't as a government employee.

"[As state epidemiologist], I had the best public health position and was at the pinnacle of my career, but I really wanted to make sure I could have an impact beyond that," he says. "At TGen North, we're not weighed down by bureaucracy. We can put things aside and jump on something else if we need to, which is really exciting. We also get satisfaction out of being able to have immediate impacts on human health."

According to Engelthaler, TGen North is also unique because of its non-profit status, which he maintains allows the agility—and freedom—to pursue the "best" science. Engelthaler also plays a key role in making sure that TGen North is poised to take advantage of its points of difference.

"In order to be successful, I had to make sure we had great staff on board, and people who could not only take direction but who could help set the direction and course," Engelthaler says. "I also wanted to make sure we had a diverse source of revenue, so if, for example, you're only going after National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and NIH goes the other direction, then you're stuck. We've been successful in getting grants from several federal agencies and different state agencies: we've got private contracts in place for service research work, and we're also working with a small pharmaceutical company to develop tools that assess their drugs' efficacy."

Engelthaler adds that he and Keim have now developed a for-profit “spin-off company” called PathoGene, LLC. to take the research outcomes from TGen and Northern Arizona University and get them into the clinic, where they can really make an impact. 

A return to his science roots

Engelthaler's ability to move comfortably in the realms of science, policy, and management stems in large part from his past experiences. After receiving his bachelor's degree in biology from Northern Arizona University in 1991, Engelthaler spent the next decade as a public health professional, researching hantavirus for the Arizona Department of Health Services and later working for the Center for Disease Control. In the late 1990s, Engelthaler returned to Arizona to work for the state health department. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the ensuing anthrax attacks, completely changed life for Engelthaler.

"[Prior to September 11], it was just me and a guy in a lab developing epidemiology and emergency response training kits," said Engelthaler. "Afterwards, my budget of $180,000 bloomed to $21 million essentially overnight. I was also the one public health guy in Arizona who was responsible for conducting investigations following the attacks. There was a span for about three months where I probably averaged two to three hours a night sleep because I was called out by emergency responders who had never dealt with public health folks before."

Three years later, Engelthaler was promoted to state epidemiologist, and was responsible for coordinating disease control activities, outbreak response, and developing pandemic plans. It was here, at the highest levels of state public health officialdom, that Engelthaler honed his management and policy skills.

"When I came on as the state epidemiologist, I was able to go back to my science roots and say, 'My biggest goal while I'm here is to have science have as much impact on public policy as possible'," Engelthaler says. "And we did that. We really brought science and hopefully some evidence-based decision making to the highest levels of the state government for anything related to public health."

Through it all, says Engelthaler, the lessons he took from his time at the university have stayed with him—and provided guidance. "I interacted with some key professors when I was at NAU who focused on how scientific methodology can help us provide specific answers to questions that have perplexed people since the beginning of time," he says.