To be the inaugural recipient of any award, one must have crafted a special career. In the case of X.J. Meng, "special" is an understatement.

Meng, a University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, is a global expert on emerging and zoonotic animal viruses. His pioneering contributions include the discovery of swine hepatitis E viruses (HEV) in pigs and avian HEV in chickens, as well as demonstration of cross-species and zoonotic infection by HEV.

A member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Inventors, Meng was recently named the inaugural recipient of the Dr. Lorraine J. Hoffman Graduate Alumni Award in Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where he received a Ph.D. in immunobiology years after earning an M.D. in his native China.

“Indeed, my training background is somewhat unorthodox,” Meng said. “I thought the best way to utilize my unique training was to conduct biomedical research in the field of comparative medicine. In this way, I felt I could contribute to both human and veterinary medicine in a meaningful way.”

As a trained physician, Meng recognizes the potential tangible impact of his research on both humans and animals, insight that has perfectly positioned him to adhere to the One Health concept.

In his work with emerging and zoonotic animal viruses, he has focused on developing effective vaccines against deadly animal viral diseases. His study of porcine circovirus (PCV)-associated diseases has advanced the technology to diagnose PCV infection rapidly and accurately. In addition, his research group invented the first fully licensed U.S. Department of Agriculture commercial vaccine against PCV type 2.

“I strongly believe that the most efficient way to prevent emerging human infectious diseases is to study and control the animal pathogens in their own animal hosts before they cross species barriers and infect humans,” Meng explained. “That is why my lab has a keen interest in understanding the mechanism of cross-species infections by emerging animal viruses.”

By necessity, Meng’s expertise has allowed him to establish collaborative projects around the world, as well as several at Iowa State. Obviously, such collaborations are essential. “There are no boundaries for infectious diseases,” Meng said. “A virus does not need a visa to travel, and this has been proven over and over again.”

As a doctoral student at Iowa State, Meng anticipated moving on, Ph.D. in hand, to work at a medical school and conduct research on human diseases. Describing this time period as “the tipping point” of his career, he became intrigued by emerging animal viruses.

“I still vividly recall my very first meeting with Dr. Prem Paul, who explained to me all the different animal viruses he was working on at the time,” Meng said. “I was completely fascinated, so I decided not to even do the typical three lab rotations before choosing a graduate mentor.”

In light of Meng’s standing as one of the world’s leading scientists studying HEV, PCV type 2, and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus, that change of plans proved auspicious — to almost everyone.

“My mother, however, still has an issue with my career choice,” Meng said. “Every time I see her, she teases me, ‘I sent you to a medical school, right? Are you still working with pigs and chickens?’”

Written by David Gieseke, Iowa State University

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