Passion for research and a drive to improve public health motivate Ligia Pinto to embrace challenges of COVID response

The coronavirus pandemic was heating up and so was the urgent need for blood tests to confirm infections. It was spring 2020, and a host of companies were developing and submitting newly minted tests to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for potential Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) approval. 

The FDA had to know if the tests were accurate. So the agency contacted Ligia Pinto, Ph.D., founder of the HPV Immunology and Serology Laboratory at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNL), to help.

Image
A portrait photo
Ligia Pinto, Ph.D.

The stage had already been set. National Cancer Institute (NCI) Deputy Director Doug Lowy previously cleared the way for an NCI response to the pandemic.

“The first thing I did was to ask if Ligia was willing to turn part of her lab into a SARS-CoV-2 lab,” Lowy said. “She was enthusiastic. Less than a month later, FDA asked if Ligia’s lab could help evaluate the technical performance of commercial serology devices that were being sent for Emergency Use Authorization.”

Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Pinto’s laboratory have evaluated more than 120 commercial devices, enabling FDA to set and meet rigorous standards for antibody tests. Pinto and her colleagues developed and made available the United States’ serology standard in December 2020, Lowy said. Pinto’s lab has collaborated with World Health Organization for the production of standards for HPV and SARS-CoV-2 and trained laboratories around the world on its use.

“She really made an important difference in the pandemic, the response of the government in general and specifically NIH’s response,” Lowy said.

A track record of research excellence

Pinto and her staff have a long research history with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that makes her laboratory well-placed for important scientific contributions against COVID-19. She completed her doctorate in immunology from the University of Lisbon and continued her postdoctoral studies at the NIH, where she investigated immune system alterations caused by HIV, and evaluated responses to HIV vaccine candidates, and novel treatment strategies.

In 2001, Pinto joined the FNL to establish the HPV Immunology Laboratory. HPV is a leading cause of cervical cancer worldwide, but preventable with a vaccine, the underlying technology of which was developed by Lowy and colleague John Schiller. Pinto’s lab has also conducted research that could help make the vaccine more accessible to women in under-resourced countries, investigating whether a single dose of the HPV vaccine could provide as much protection as the current three-dose regimen. Fewer doses tend to increase vaccination rates.

“Part of what set her up to make a straightforward change from HPV (human papillomavirus) to SARS-CoV-2 is her lab has basically become the top serology laboratory in the world for HPV antibody testing,” Lowy said. And Pinto’s work continues to be an important component of Lowy’s HPV research.

A scientific leader in the ongoing pandemic response

After the successful pivot to SARS-CoV-2 serology, Pinto played a critical role in establishing the NCI-supported Serological Sciences Network, or SeroNet, the nation’s largest coordinated effort to study the immune response to COVID-19 with 25 participating academic institutions.

The network aims to improve and broaden testing across all populations and to help improve treatments and vaccines through a better understanding of the immune response to the virus and vaccines. This includes standardizing blood tests, conducting basic and applied research, and studying coronavirus infections in healthy individuals and cancer patients. Research questions include: Why do some people get sicker than others and some don’t get sick at all? Can a person get infected twice? How long does immunity last?

The SeroNet Coordinating Center is located at FNL and operated by members of Pinto’s team. Along with Carlos-Cordon Cardo at Mount Sinai, Pinto is co-chair of the Clinical and Translational Serology Task Force (CTTF). The task force aims to help translate COVID-19 serology research findings into public health changes and recently shared its work via its newsletter, SeroNews.

In addition to SeroNet, Pinto continues to build national and international collaborations around her ongoing work in HPV, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and a research program in cancer prevention. She now heads the FNL’s Vaccine Immunity and Cancer Directorate.

Fueled by her passion for research

Pinto acknowledges she has worked every day since the pandemic began. But she says it with a smile, as she finds the challenge most rewarding. Pinto has little time for outside activities. 

There was a time when she thought about going into medicine, and she had the grades to do it. “But I loved the research part of it,” she said. “I’m not cut out for being a doctor. I would see people suffering and I would cry. I want to contribute to public health and ease the suffering of people but not work directly with patients.”

On this goal she is singularly focused: “I’m all about my work.” For those around her, however, she recommends a different approach

“In school I’d wake very early,” she said. “I didn’t want to be late. I was extremely nerdy, didn’t go anywhere as a teenager, didn’t really go out. I just wanted to study. That was the No. 1 thing. Now I encourage others to find balance in their lives. I’m not really balanced.”

Taking on opportunities to contribute

The demands are great and the workload heavy for Pinto and her growing team on the front lines of NCI’s COVID response. But so are the opportunities for learning and professional growth. Pinto engages and encourages her team to meet these challenges while keeping things in perspective. She strives to create a positive and engaging work environment. 

Troy Kemp, Manager II Scientist and a long-time member of Pinto’s group, said she is truly concerned about members of her team having a balanced life. “She does her best not to contact me on the weekend, to really separate out the work itself.”

Kemp said he was recently talking with Pinto about his 5-month-old son, “just discussing how he’s growing and crazy right now. She really wants that communication with her staff, please be open we’re all here to help each other and move things through,” he said. “It’s just great. She is very interested, making sure that everything’s going well.”

Pinto is always on the lookout for new challenges and scientific opportunities to help people. “Ligia excels simultaneously in having a lot of initiative in trying to do new things and at the same time being a real team player,” Lowy said. It’s a trait that is ever-present in staff meetings and one-on-one discussions with her team.

“We bounce ideas off each other,” said Bo Park, Pinto’s administrative director. “It’s inspiring because she doesn’t limit things to just what we have now. She looks at what are our capabilities, and what are other places we can reach? She is constantly reaching to be better.”

Park, who joined the group in February 2021, said she feels like she has known Pinto for a long time: “It speaks to how down-to-earth she is. And she is really wise. When I started, she had me meet all the key players at FNL.”

“I counted how many people I met in a month and a half, and it was about 45 people. It was necessary and she saw that,” Park said. “I really appreciate that she thinks ahead. If I didn’t meet them—these key players—my job would have been harder. It helped so much.”

For now, Pinto’s group is back on location with laboratories at the Advanced Technology Research Facility and the NCI Campus adjacent to Fort Detrick. With the deadly pandemic still hovering, Pinto felt the workplace needed a bright touch.

“Flowers almost every week,” Park said. “Big bunches she puts in all these different vases, or if you’ve been away for a while, she’ll put them in your office. It lightens up the whole area.”

Pinto smiles: “Flowers give you some, I don’t know, happiness. It’s good to be surrounded by positivity and happiness.”