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Updated: November 27, 2023 / 2023 Champions of Health Care

Champions of Health Care: Gibson is a global leader in CMV research, treatment & screening

PHOTO | Courtesy of UMass Memorial Health Dr. Laura Gibson, UMass Chan Medical School associate professor of infectious disease and immunology

Medical research and bedside patient care often exist in different spheres, but UMass Memorial Health’s Dr. Laura Gibson applies all she’s discovered about a rare form of a common virus to her patients in order to create better outcomes for newborn babies.

Gibson is a national and global leader in congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) research. Congenital CMV is a form of a common herpes virus generally causing only mild illness in healthy children and adults, but the disease can cause severe illness, lifelong effects, and even death when contracted by babies in utero.

Her work stemmed from a strong interest begun in medical school in how the immune system interacts with viruses. Earlier in her career, Gibson’s focus on congenital CMV was a niche receiving little attention from other researchers. Much of the research was directed at immunocompromised people who had received organ or stem-cell transplants. But when parents of affected babies gained traction with advocacy and legislation in 2010, the winds changed.

Dr. Laura Gibson Bio Box
Dr. Laura Gibson bio box

“It was like a fork in the road,” said Gibson, who is a pediatric and adult infectious disease physician at UMass Memorial Health, as well as associate professor of infectious disease and immunology and principal investigator in the departments of Medicine and Pediatrics at UMass Chan Medical School.

Suddenly, Gibson had a group of passionate parents to help propel research and legislation to increase screening for CMV among pregnant women. Multiple states passed various laws requiring CMV screening in newborns.

Since that time, much of the work Gibson has done has been supported by these efforts. At UMass Memorial, Gibson’s team introduced a local CMV screening program in 2017. Meanwhile, Gibson helped launch the Massachusetts CMV Coalition (MCC), which since 2021 has advocated for a bill to mandate prenatal congenital CMV education and universal screening of newborns in the Bay State.

Gibson said CMV affects about 22,000 babies in the U.S. and 400 in Mass. annually – about 0.7 percent of live births– and most babies don’t have noticeable effects. But in affected babies, the virus can infect the brain and nervous system, and it lives in the body for life, so effects such as hearing and vision loss and neurodevelopmental delays can develop or worsen over time without intervention.

Gibson treated one such patient, Logan Colleran, in the UMass Memorial Neonatal Intensive Care Unit when he was born with severe complications from congenital CMW at just 27 weeks gestation in June 2017. Logan’s mother, Vanessa Colleran, has since worked closely with Gibson on the MCC and other congenital CMV advocacy efforts.

“She's always been our unspoken leader; she’s been the glue that’s held us all together,” Colleran said.

With expectations that a congenital CMV education and screening bill will pass in Massachusetts, Gibson continues boots-on-the-ground work to educate the Worcester community. A Southborough native who graduated from UMass Chan Medical School in 1994, Gibson has strong local ties. Her father was a manager at Worcester manufacturer Norton throughout her childhood.

She’s created local partnerships, including an ongoing study called The CMV Transmission and Immune Tracking Study. Gibson’s team is developing a network of participating childcare centers in the Worcester, Metrowest, and Boston areas to provide education about the transmission of the virus to those who are at risk, such as families and caregivers of young children in daycare centers. Parents of children attending participating centers are asked to complete a survey and allow their children to submit saliva samples for the project.

Darlene Belliveau, director of children’s services for the YWCA Central Massachusetts, jumped at the chance to participate. She welcomes collaboration with UMass Memorial, having provided emergency child care for its essential employees during the COVID-19. Parents and staff had a lot of concerns, but Gibson fielded them with ease.

“Not many researchers can do that. You have to have that interpersonal skill as well, and she does,” Belliveau said.

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