By Jeanine Matlow
As many anxiously await a COVID-19 vaccine, one native Detroiter, John Cooke, MD, PhD, is actually working on one.
Growing up in East Detroit (now Eastpointe) as the eldest of six kids in a blue-collar neighborhood, Cooke fondly recalls his modest childhood home on Nine Mile Road that only had two bedrooms until his dad built one in the attic for the boys. “It was a semi-industrial area with trucks transporting supplies for the auto industry. We went to sleep at night with the roar of the trucks going by. It was like a lullaby for us,” he said.
Other positive memories remain. “My mother was a saint,” said Cooke, who earned his MD at Wayne State School of Medicine. “She was a stay-at-home mom who spent so much time with each of us to help us to be successful in school and aim high.”
She even found an ad for a Cranbrook Schools scholarship competition that he would go on to win.
Cooke seemed destined for success even before his high school years at Cranbrook. “I always wanted to be a scientist. I really was fascinated by life and living things,” he said. “In second grade, my father bought me an encyclopedia set and half of one volume was on microscopic animals. Paramecia were my favorite.”
He remembers the nuns at St. Veronica School asking students to make a sculpture of their favorite animal. While other kids presented cats and dogs and the occasional goldfish, he made paramecia.
Later, he would train in cardiovascular medicine and obtain a PhD at the Mayo Clinic and teach at Harvard Medical School and Stanford University School of Medicine.
Today, his passion continues at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, where he takes on multiple roles as professor and chair of the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences; Director of the Center for Cardiovascular Regeneration; Director of the RNA Therapeutics Program; and member of the board of Houston Methodist Research Institute.
“It’s been really fun to bring in brilliant young scientists,” he said about his team currently collaborating on a COVID-19 vaccine with GeneOne Life Science known for DNA vaccines. “They learn from us how to manufacture RNA therapeutics that essentially are a working copy of the DNA encoding a protein. It’s like writing code, which is why RNA vaccines are becoming the new norm.”
Though some vaccines are expected sooner than others, they are in the early stages. “We’re not going to be the first. We’re in primates right now and we’re new to this arena, but we’ll be ready for the next pandemic,” he said. “One of the things we’re doing is making a better RNA vaccine.”
In the meantime, improved treatments include steroids and convalescent serum.
He said there are strategies to employ to keep the lining of the blood vessels healthy to help resist potential complications. “People with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity are more likely to get more serious symptoms, the reason being that they already have endothelium (membrane lining the heart) that is somewhat abnormal,” he said.
“What we can do is address the conditions that need to be treated, be on a good diet like the Mediterranean diet, and exercise. Just a small amount of walking can have a beneficial effect.”
On another hopeful note, Dr. Cooke said, “We are all working together on a vaccine. It’s an international effort. To see that common goal is inspiring.”