In the Lab

Terri Wrin ’79 has spent decades in the lab searching for ways to address some of the world’s deadliest viruses, starting with HIV and now contributing research to COVID-19 vaccine development.

Mary “Terri” Wrin ’79 hasn’t had a day off in a long time. Turns out, doing your part to lift the world out of a pandemic doesn’t leave much time for a vacation. But Wrin, incredibly humble for someone whose team has developed one of the world’s leading tests of COVID-19 vaccine-stimulated antibody responses, is hopeful for the first time in a long while.

“This pandemic is a nightmare but now there’s a possibility that there will be really good vaccination rates within a year,” she says. “I’m glad to be a part of the effort.”

Her team developed an assay, which, for the non-biologist, is an essential component in the development of any viral vaccine by determining its ability to stimulate production of neutralizing antibodies. In the case of COVID-19, the assay gauges the capacity of antibodies—proteins used by the immune system to ID and fight off attacks—to inhibit the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Wrin and her research team at Lab- Corp in San Francisco quickly went to work developing the assay early last spring just as the new coronavirus began spreading rampantly in the U.S.

Scientist illustration by Lonnie Garcia
“COVID-19 research is only the latest chapter of my mother’s long career in virology, which began in the ’80s with research on HIV/AIDS,” writes Julia Piper of
her mother, Terri Wrin ’79. Illustration by Lonnie Garcia.

“We can help tell companies if their particular vaccine is generating neutralizing antibodies—how long they stay high, how quickly they decline,” Wrin says. “We care about how long they last,” and if they wane, she says there is a possibility that vaccine recipients will need boosters in the future.

Wrin’s daughter, Julia Piper, says her “inspiring” mother sees this work as “her second chance to do something really big.” After graduating from SCU with a degree in biology, Wrin went to work in a public health department lab in Berkeley just as the HIV/AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s. But unlike COVID-19, which has seen scientists mobilize at incredible speeds to develop incredibly effective vaccines, researchers never found a successful vaccine for HIV. Though treatment has come a very long way, more than 32 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

“With COVID, early on, my mom said that serendipitously she might be one of the only people who has this very specific expertise [developing pseudovirus neutralizing antibody assays] and still be in the lab,” Piper says. “She stayed in the lab and focused on the science instead of getting distracted by the politics of business. She’s a true, deep expert on this one thing, which means in a crisis she’s the one person who can really come through.”

Wrin says Santa Clara helped prepare her for a long career spent in the lab. “My little biology department was small but very effective,” she says, with particular fondness for her immunology and microbiology courses. “I learned to be very interested in diseases and was very well prepared for the next steps. … I also just liked the whole focus on ethics at Santa Clara,” she says, which made for a natural segue into a career in public health, focused on making discoveries that do the most good for the most people.

Numb