Archived News


February 26, 2002

Dr. Tilahun Yilma
Dr. Yilma directs the
International Laboratory of Molecular Biology For Tropical Disease Agents
Tilahun Yilma, a veterinary virologist who genetically engineered a vaccine for a deadly cattle disease and is now working to develop an AIDS vaccine, has been named the 2002 Faculty Research Lecturer by his colleagues at the University of California, Davis.

The 60th annual presentation of this honor, which recognizes exceptional research contributions of a campus faculty member, was made today during the annual spring meeting of the UC Davis Academic Senate. This is the highest honor UC Davis faculty members can bestow upon their peers. Traditionally, the recipient presents a springtime campus lecture related to his or her research.

"Tilahun Yilma is part of a UC Davis tradition of both expanding fundamental knowledge and applying that knowledge for great practical good," said George Breuning of the academic senate's Faculty Research Lecturer selection committee. "His research efforts have advanced our knowledge of vaccine biology, created new vaccines, and saved and empowered lives in developing regions of the world, particularly in Africa."

Yilma's interest in livestock diseases can be traced back to his childhood in Ethiopia, where he learned from his grandmother about "Yekebit Elkkit," the Year of the Annihilation of Cattle. It was in that year, 1888, that Italian troops invading Ethiopia inadvertently introduced the deadly viral disease "rinderpest" to Africa. Carried by just three infected cows, rinderpest spread from Ethiopia's east coast across the Sahel Desert, killing in just one year 90 percent of the domesticated cattle, plus countless wild buffalo, giraffe and antelope.

As a result, an estimated 30 percent to 60 percent of Ethiopia's population starved to death that year.

After earning his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 1970 from the School of Veterinary Medicine, Yilma returned to Ethiopia and spent two years as a veterinarian tracking the nomadic herders in the campaign to vaccinate Africa's cattle and wipe out rinderpest. More than 125 million cattle were vaccinated, and for several years it appeared that rinderpest had been eradicated in Africa. But in 1980, the virus resurfaced in Nigeria and swept back across the Sahel. Ethiopia and Somalia were then embroiled in conflict and it was impossible to vaccinate the livestock along their border to halt the spread of the disease.

In its return, rinderpest killed an estimated $400 million worth of cattle and sapped more than $2 billion in related losses out of Africa's already weak economy.

When Yilma returned to UC Davis in 1986 as a professor of virology he was determined to develop a rinderpest vaccine suited to Africa's climate and economy. In just one year, he published in the journal Science, the development of an elegantly simple vaccine produced through genetic engineering.

Based on the vaccinia virus, the same virus used to make the smallpox vaccine, the new rinderpest vaccine didn't require refrigeration, could easily be scratched onto the animal's neck or abdomen without injection, and could be reproduced in abundance using a scab from the vaccination site.

Yilma spent the next decade refining the vaccine and working through numerous political and regulatory challenges. In 1997 the vaccine was approved for widespread use throughout Africa. It was the first genetically engineered vaccine to be released by a U.S.-funded researcher in a foreign country. He went on to develop inexpensive diagnostic kits for rinderpest and made them available to African scientists.

His research efforts are now focused on using similar recombinant-DNA technology to develop a vaccine for AIDS.

Yilma's dedication to developing a rinderpest vaccine was matched by a passion to encourage young scientists in developing nations. For years he had watched the best and brightest young minds from struggling nations come to the United States for advanced education, only to find upon graduation that their home nations lacked the sophisticated laboratories necessary to carry out the research they had been trained for.

Undaunted, Yilma worked to secure funding for new biotechnology laboratories in developing countries. As a result of his efforts, the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1990, with the help of the Egyptian government, constructed near Cairo the Laboratory of Molecular Biology for Tropical Diseases, an offspring of Yilma's own laboratory at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Yilma has earned three degrees from UC Davis: a bachelor's degree in veterinary science in 1968, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 1970 and a doctoral degree in microbiology in 1977.

He served from 1980 to 1986 as a faculty member in the department of veterinary microbiology and pathology at Washington State University and from 1977 to 1979 as a research associate at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.

Over the years, Yilma's research accomplishments have been recognized with numerous professional awards including the Smith Kline Beecham Award for Excellence in Research in 1988, and the Ciba-Geigy Award for Research in Animal Science in 1989.

On campus, he has been honored with the UC Davis Distinguished Public Service Award in 1994, the School of Veterinary Medicine's Faculty Award for Research Excellence in 1993 and 1991 and the UC Davis Alumni Achievement Award in 1991.

Media contact:

Tilahun Yilma, Veterinary Medicine,
(530) 752-8306

The above information was distributed by Campus News Service February 26, 2002.