Texas Biomed’s newest professor combines passion for animals, high containment labs and infectious disease research.

Assistant Professor Tori Baxter, DVM, PhD, has found her sweet spot. Growing up in Dallas, Dr. Baxter spent a lot of time at her parents’ small animal veterinary clinic. She loved animals, but also didn’t want to run her own practice. She thought maybe she’d become a doctor instead, but through a summer internship discovered she didn’t enjoy working with human patients directly.

What she did enjoy? Research. Especially, research in biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) labs on pathogens that cause severe disease in humans.

“I love everything about it,” Dr. Baxter says. “Other people might think it is weird or scary, but I feel way safer in the BSL-3 than in the real world.”

She is in good company, then, at Texas Biomed, home to multiple BSL-3 labs and the first independent BSL-4 in the nation.

“Texas Biomed is the mecca of infectious disease research, especially high containment infectious disease research,” says Dr. Baxter, who joined the faculty in November.

Dr. Baxter brings with her a wealth of experience in caring for lab animals, developing and optimizing animal models, and infectious disease research. After studying genetics and veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University, she became board certified in lab animal medicine and earned a PhD in viral immunology at Johns Hopkins University.

“A lot of emerging infectious diseases come from animals,” Dr. Baxter says. “It is fascinating to me how these pathogens adapt to their new host, one-upping us and our immune systems.”

She is also fascinated by how immune reactions are both protective and harmful. Sometimes it is not the virus causing the damage to a person, but the person’s own immune response. She is particularly drawn to studying this phenomenon in the brain.

“The brain adds an extra layer of challenge because it is largely inaccessible, especially in human patients,” Dr. Baxter says. “Cue the need for animal models.”

For the past six years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she has been developing a mouse model for chikungunya virus. A mosquito-borne pathogen that has spread to many parts of the world, chikungunya can cause debilitating joint pain. But in some cases, it affects the brain and causes neurological problems. She wants to understand what is different about those cases and find potential treatments, so she is developing the necessary animal model.

“I am passionate about using my veterinary and lab animal experience to determine what is the best animal model for the research question a scientist is trying to answer,” Dr. Baxter says. “This way we are being respectful and minimize the number of animals needed.”

She is also improving animal models. For decades, lab mice have been bred free of pathogens, to ensure prior exposure to bacteria, viruses or parasites do not affect how they respond to a vaccine or treatment.

But researchers have since realized these mice have very immature immune systems, which is also not ideal for studying how a body will respond to a medicine. Dr. Baxter and others are developing protocols to mature a lab mouse’s immune system in a controlled way, so it better mimics a human immune system. She’ll bring these mice to Texas Biomed, which can support many researchers studying vaccines and therapies.

She can’t wait to get started.

“I really like that I’ll be working with folks focused on collaboration, with everybody bringing their individual expertise towards a common goal,” Dr. Baxter says.

Along with joining the Texas Biomed team, she is also excited to return to her home state of Texas with her family and three dogs.

“My whole family is here, my husband’s family is here,” she says. “After 12 years on the East Coast, we are so glad to be coming back to Texas.”

This story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2022 edition of TxBiomed magazine. See more TxBiomed editions here.