Heroes of the COVID Crisis: How Stephen Russel & Imanis Life Sciences Stepped Up to Make a Difference During the Pandemic
As part of our series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic. I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Russell, M.D., Ph.D., CEO, and co-founder of Imanis Life Sciences
December 23, 2020, Imanis Life Sciences, Rochester MN
Dr. Russell, inspired by frontline workers committed to making a difference during these unprecedented times, is leading Imanis Life Science’s efforts in providing first-of-its-kind, accessible tests and research that can further improve and accelerate collective efforts in finding a cure for COVID-19.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?
I grew up on the south coast of the United Kingdom, the second youngest of seven children. When I was 13, I moved to Moray, Scotland to attend Gordonstoun School, a co-educational independent boarding school.
Through my education, I was inspired from a young age to pursue a career in bioscience.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Field’s Virology by Bernard N. Fields, the authoritative reference book for virology, stands out for providing all aspects of virus biology as well as replication and medical aspects of specific virus families. Working in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical field, the book has had an immense impact on me.
I can easily lose myself reading Field’s Virology and would hope to have it on hand with me if I were ever on a desert island.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Repetition and familiarity are the essence of learning.”
This is a quote I find myself regularly sharing with students, post-doctorates and anyone I mentor because it is so beneficial for any new concept or line of work.
The power of repetition is in its simplicity. A message heard repeatedly is more likely to stay in your mind. The more senses a concept touches, and times it is heard, the more likely your team will hear your message and help deliver the results you desire.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
Imanis Life Sciences provides biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies products and services in the fields of oncolytic virotherapy and noninvasive reporter gene imaging. These curative approaches to human disease are really gaining momentum with recent breakthroughs and will transform the face of medicine over the next decade or two.
Most recently, Imanis has been more involved in the use of engineered viruses as vaccines, specifically antibody testing for COVID-19. Our neutralizing antibody test, IMMUNO-COV™, created in collaboration with Mayo Clinic and Regeneron, measures virus-neutralizing antibody titers (quantities), the ones that can stop SARS-CoV-2 from taking hold and spreading in the body, thereby assessing the strength and durability of one’s immunity to COVID-19 over time.
IMMUNO-COV™ determines the concentration of virus-killing antibodies in a blood sample, unlike most antibody tests authorized in the US that generate a simple “yes” or “no” test result as to whether antibodies were detected.
Post-infection neutralizing antibody titers could be very helpful to inform the distribution of limited available vaccines, prioritizing vulnerable individuals with the lowest titers for booster shots.
We want to continue providing tests and research that can further improve our collective efforts in finding a cure for COVID-19.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?
A heroic act must address a problem in which a dire solution is needed.
To survive on this planet, you need to be selfish in addressing your physiological and safety needs, such as health, shelter, etc. It’s the selfless behaviors we practice in society that reflect heroic actions, contributing to the common good.
Heroes also inspire. When we think about who inspires us most, it’s everyday people who’ve done extraordinary things. We appreciate when someone is willing to be selfless, creative, or innovative. We never know whom we’re going to influence when we give freely, and without concern for who may be able to reciprocate if we ever find ourselves in need.
In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.
- Self-sacrificing — A hero is someone who does something heroic for the benefit of others. This doesn’t mean that a hero can’t benefit from his or her own heroism, but their deed or performance or accomplishment is not primarily for personal benefit. They are selfless in their service — not self-serving.
- Intelligent — Heroes tend to hold both high emotional quotient (EQ) and intelligence quotient (IQ). They understand potential negative consequences of their actions and avoid causing inadvertant harm when they intervene
- Considerate — True heroes understand the people around them and try to ensure that their actions maximize happiness without bringing misery to anyone.
- Compassionate — Caring and kindness are of fundamental importance for heroic behavior as is having compassion for others who need help.
- Spontaneous — People who put themselves at risk to make a positive impact for others appear to do so without delay and without worrying excessively over the potential negative impact it could have for themselves.
If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?
I think everyone has hero DNA. It is in human nature to see a problem and act upon it to find a solution. I think that’s what can motivate anyone to be a part of the solution and offer help to others, no matter how difficult or intimidating the task may be.
Heroes are everywhere, we just need to look deeper to find the hero within the people we already know.
What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
As an organization working on the front lines of engineering, we realized our obligation to help improve access to the tools and knowledge (e.g. neutralizing antibodies, vaccines) that are essential in addressing this pandemic.
Our entire organization felt energized and driven to make an impact in building immunity to COVID-19, a disease that has done unmeasurable harm across the globe.
Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?
I see the capacity for heroism in a lot of people every day. More specifically, my heroes are my family and friends, the talented team at Imanis, and my peers at Mayo Clinic and across the industry working assiduously to make a difference in this pandemic.
In times such as this many people are stepping up to the challenge to work and contribute where they can. They all inspire me in different capacities, so it’s difficult to single out any one person’s heroic actions when I am constantly being inspired by the entire community that surrounds me.
Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?
This pandemic has a relatively low mortality compared, for example, to the 1918 influenza pandemic, but what has been frightening is the societal impact that many did not see coming — job loss, social distancing, etc.
When the virus arrived, we saw massive lay-offs, facility closures amid new safety measures, etc. much of which has continued as the pandemic is ongoing. These events have generated an alarming amount of societal damage–both mental and economical — that may have long-term impacts we do not yet know.
Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?
I think our quality of life will be positively impacted beyond the pandemic. We are looking at a different future as vaccines begin massive rollouts across the world. We have discovered the efficiencies of remote working, zoom conferencing and on-line shopping which will create more options and opportunity for those who want to spend more time at home and more freedom to choose where they want to live.
What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?
A lot of positive human characteristics have been amplified during the pandemic. In my experience people are generally uncomplaining, considerate, and helping of others wherever they can.
There has been a lot of resilience shown by those who are experiencing misfortune, showing real grit and determination during these unprecedented times, which has been very inspiring.
There has also been a concerning amount of pessimism and distrust in scientific efforts focused on defeating the virus, which has certainly been disappointing to hear.
Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.
We have a new understanding of the digital world, embracing approaches where we can achieve daily tasks using technology we did not seem to utilize prior to COVID.
It’s been eye opening how much more efficient business operations can be when we embrace our digital footprint and make opportunities more accessible for people by using the latest and greatest technology.
What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?
A better understanding and appreciation of viruses — not just how they spread and how to prevent them from causing harm — but also how they are being harnessed as vaccines, and as vehicles for curative gene and regenerative medicine therapies. I genuinely believe that the field of medicine is in the midst of a radical transformation that centers on viral technology and will bring enormous benefits to all of us.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
You get back what you put in.
The results may not be immediate, but the efforts you put in today will directly result in what you accomplish in the future.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Training children’s development in present moment awareness when they are learning at school. I think we can provide better access and innovation in tools to make kids at this age happier and less overwhelmed by stress.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Emma Thompson’s character in the film “I Am Legend”, Dr. Alice Krippin. Krippin genetically engineered the measles virus into a 100% effective cure for cancer.
At the start of the movie, Dr. Krippin is being interviewed about what has been achieved with her oncolytic viral therapy and is asked how many patients of the 10,009 individuals who have been tested in clinical trials have been cured.
She answers with “10,009”. One day I would love to be that person who says that everyone treated with the viral therapy has been cured.
How can our readers follow you online?
For any information around the latest developments at Imanis Life Sciences, readers can visit https://imanislife.com/!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!