‘A special person’
World-renowned UF Health biochemistry researcher Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, Ph.D., dies
University of Florida Health biochemistry professor Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, Ph.D., whose world-renowned work on the detailed structure of viruses led to advances in gene therapy treatments for different diseases, died March 3 at her home near Gainesville of the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. She was 57.
Agbandje-McKenna’s work with the small, infectious particles had a worldwide impact, allowing other scientists to be more precise in their use of viruses for therapeutics. She was instrumental in advancing the use of the adeno-associated virus, or AAV, as a leading method for gene delivery to treat a variety of human diseases.
“She was a special person like no one else I have ever known in the sense that she enjoyed research and loved teaching students in her lab,” said Bert Flanegan, Ph.D., a professor and chair of the UF College of Medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology.
Flanegan recalled Agbandje-McKenna’s unbridled enthusiasm for her work while speaking to a group of students at a virology conference. She would wake up every morning excited about science — something she told the students was vital to their success.
“What was remarkable about Mavis was that she touched so many scientific communities at UF,” said Stephen Sugrue, Ph.D., associate vice president for research at UF Health. “She bridged virology, structural biology and neuroscience as someone who was an expert on the structural analysis of viruses and how they track to certain domains of the body.”
Agbandje-McKenna’s scientific accomplishments were matched by an indomitable spirit. During some periods of her illness, she was known to have six or seven students in her office for mentoring sessions.
She also contributed much to diversity in science, said Joseph A. Tyndall, M.D., M.P.H., associate vice president for strategic and academic affairs for UF Health.
“Because Mavis played such an important, supportive role to others whose science she helped advance through her work, she sits firmly in the category as one of the most special, unsung heroes that we know,” Tyndall said. “She did this as a Black woman in science, breaking down the barriers of diversity and equity in race and gender. I will never forget her continued dedication to her students. They were her life and her passion.”
Agbandje-McKenna’s scientific work was truly at the leading edge, Flanegan said. In 2018, she was part of a team that obtained an unprecedented view of a gene-delivery virus. That work is paving the way for further development of improved gene therapies.
Using an imaging method known as cryo-electron microscopy, their discovery lets scientists see the shapes of biological molecules more closely than ever — almost down to the level of a single atom. That provides a better understanding of how the human immune system recognizes viruses and how they enter the human body.
At the time, Agbandje-McKenna said the technique would become especially important for developing a better understanding of how gene therapy viruses interact with the human immune system — one of the major remaining hurdles to the using AAV viruses for gene therapy.
Agbandje-McKenna’s work was recognized across campus and throughout the world. She was selected to receive UF’s Innovator of the Year award in 2018 for the breadth and depth of her work with AAV gene therapy. In April 2020, she earned the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy’s Outstanding Achievement Award, the group’s highest award, which recognizes pioneering research success. She also served as the director of the UF Center for Structural Biology.
“Dr. Mavis Agbandje-McKenna was an amazing UF researcher, not simply for her remarkable contributions to our fundamental understanding of biochemical systems, but also in translating discoveries into impactful technologies for generations to come,” said David Norton, Ph.D., UF’s vice president for research. “In 2018, we were honored to name her as Innovator of the Year, an award bestowed for breadth, depth and impact of her work in the application of adeno-associated viruses for gene therapy. Her presence here at UF inspired all that knew her. We are a better institution because she was a part of us.”
Agbandje-McKenna’s scientific interests included viruses that target the brain, particularly among young children and young adults. Understanding how a virus targets the brain is a step toward developing a treatments such as a small-molecule inhibitor or vaccine, she said in 2016.
In 2017, she and a collaborator discovered a way to alter a virus that was expected to allow more people to participate in crucial clinical trials of gene therapies. In many people, the body’s immune system recognizes and fights the helpful virus used for treatment. Her discovery with Aravind Asokan, Ph.D., director of gene therapy at the Duke University School of Medicine, created a road map for redesigning helpful viruses that that can slip past the immune system.
Agbandje-McKenna called it “the blueprint for producing AAV strains that could help more patients become eligible for human gene therapy.”
She was a co-founder of StrideBio, a North-Carolina based startup biotechnology company that focuses on developing AAV vectors that can evade neutralizing antibodies during gene therapy.
Born in Nigeria, she was living with her grandmother when civil war broke out in her country in the late 1960s. Agbandje-McKenna was able to escape and moved to London to join her parents when she was 11 years old. She earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of London, where she met her husband and research partner, Robert McKenna, Ph.D., also a biochemistry professor at UF. The McKennas both worked at Purdue University before joining the UF faculty in 1999. Other survivors include two adult children.
In addition to Agbandje-McKenna’s scientific and teaching accomplishments, Flanegan was also fond of her warm personality.
He said, “She was just a really nice person who always had a smile on her face.”