Bruce Johnson: Seeking a Genetic Approach To Improve HIV Treatments

The Structural Biology Initiative's Bruce Johnson in the CUNY ASRC's NMR Facility.
The Structural Biology Initiative’s Bruce Johnson in the CUNY ASRC’s NMR Facility.

Bruce Johnson grew up in Washington State, studied marine biology in college, worked as a commercial salmon fisherman to pay his way through, and expected to become an environmental lawyer.

What he did become is something far upstream: a computational scientist and structural biologist who has developed some of the world’s most important software for research studies that use the technology of nuclear magnetic resonance to develop new drugs. Lately he’s been a key member of a nationwide team of researchers, supported by a major grant from the National Institutes of Health, that is pursuing an intriguing genetic approach to improving treatment of HIV.

“Thinking about becoming an environmental lawyer when I was young, I found I needed to know more and more about how organisms worked if that’s what I was going to do,” Johnson says. “And I just sort of ended up on this spiral into more and more detail, which eventually brought me into a whole new world of drug discovery.”

Johnson came to that world — and the broader one he inhabits as a leader in the development of scientific software — by way of a series of fortunate adventures in science. He received his Ph.D. in zoology from Duke University, studying blue crabs at the Duke marine lab, where he learned about the biochemistry of both crustaceans and humans: Blue crabs, it turns out, have oxygen-transfer proteins that are analogous to human hemoglobin. From there Johnson moved to Yale for postdoctoral work in molecular biophysics and biochemistry that turned out to be pivotal. It was there that he began working with the research technique that became his stock in trade: nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

The technology that uses the magnetic fields of molecules to reveal important things about their structures, how they work and under what conditions. It led to a 15-year career at the pharmaceutical giant Merck, where Johnson first began developing the software for which he has since become prominent — algorithms and programs for visualizing and analyzing NMR spectroscopy data that have become an indispensable tool in the development of new drugs for a host of diseases.

In 2005, Johnson left Merck to form a company, One Moon Scientific, to commercialize his software and license it to other researchers for their own studies. His major software, called NMRViewJ, remains one of the leading programs that scientists worldwide use to process and analyze their NMR data from proteins and nucleic acids.

One of those scientists is Kevin Gardner, director of the Structural Biology Initiative of the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center, who had been had been using Johnson’s software virtually his whole career. In 2014, Gardner recruited Johnson to CUNY’s innovative new science center from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose research faculty he had joined a few years after starting his software company.

Johnson’s recent work has focused on RNA molecules, particularly as a new way of battling the HIV virus. He’s a principal investigator in the Center for HIV RNA Studies, a five-year, $21 million NIH grant that’s based at the University of Michigan Medical School and involves 20 researchers in a range of disciplines from across the country.

The team published its first work in the spring of 2015, a paper in Science in which they reported advances — using software Johnson developed for the research — in understanding the structure of the part of the RNA molecule that is the genetic material of the HIV virus. It shed new light on the role of the virus’s RNA in in its replication.

“Though we have some amazing therapeutics for HIV, there’s still a huge unmet need for new ones because the drugs do have side effects and they are expensive, especially for people in poor countries,” Johnson says. The hunt is for a whole new class of drugs, especially ones to which the virus is less likely to develop resistance. “All the treatments we have so far target the proteins that HIV makes and uses. There are no treatments that work via the RNA molecule, which is the virus’s fundamental genetic material. It’s really an untapped target for possible therapeutics.”

Original story may be found here.