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Vaccine Virtuoso

The viral horsemen of the apocalypse number more than four. They include HIV, dengue, influenza (in all its permutations), West Nile, Ebola, Zika and other scourges that are yet unknown nor named.

J. Thomas August fought them in his laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, which he headed for 23 years while pioneering research to develop vaccines to combat deadly viruses.

In 1980, August discovered lysosome-associated membrane proteins (LAMPs), located in the membranes of minute structures within cells that are called lysosomes, which transport contents in and out of the cell. He found that LAMPs helped to activate the immune system by delivering toxic antigens to other immune system cells. This discovery revolutionized immunology, prompting other scientists to develop DNA vaccines that could leverage the ability of LAMPs to alert the immune system to the presence of antigens that pose a threat by targeting and enhancing the delivery of them to the cells that help fight the disease’s invasion.

In 2006, he founded a company based on his LAMP research. Its $300 million licensing agreement for LAMP technology is Johns Hopkins Medicine’s largest technology transfer to date.

August came to Johns Hopkins in 1976 as director of the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. To emphasize the department’s concentration on molecular research, he changed its name, dropping “experimental therapeutics” in favor of “molecular sciences.” He headed the department until 1999 but remained on the faculty. He was extremely active, ultimately obtaining eight patents on vaccine-related technology.

August died on Feb. 11, 2019, of cancer. He was 91.

James Stivers, ’92 Ph.D., interim director of pharmacology and molecular sciences, citing August’s “gracious demeanor and warmth,” told The Baltimore Sun that it would be “hard to exaggerate the personal and scientific impact of Tom on our department.”

Vaccine Virtuoso
It would be “hard to exaggerate the personal and scientific impact of Tom on our department.”
—James Stivers
Interim Director of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences