Mavis Agbandje-McKenna’s Lifelong Commitment to Teaching and Research

Barry J. Byrne, M.D., Ph.D., Angela L. McCall, Ph.D., Beverly L. Davidson, Ph.D., and R. Jude Samulski, Ph.D. - March 10, 2021

Mavis Agbandje-McKenna was the recipient of ASGCT's 2020 Outstanding Achievement Award.

Mavis Agbandje-McKenna, Ph.D. has passed away after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 57. We write this tribute on behalf of her commitment and contributions as a mentor, collaborator, and colleague.

Her path to a career in science began with her escape from civil war in Nigeria as a child and schooling in London where she earned her Ph.D. in 1989. There she met her lifelong research partner and husband Robert McKenna. In this partnership, they set off on another uncharted journey to solve the mystery of the viral structure for both a pathogenic virus and other unique members of the Parvovirus family, especially the key member, adeno-associated virus (AAV). In these early days there was only the faint notion that AAV would someday transform the landscape of therapy for genetically defined diseases. She and Rob came to the University of Florida in 1999 when the gene therapy program was just getting underway and the crosstalk between basic and translational scientists was the oxygen that fueled the early discovery of AAV basic science and clinical translation.

Mavis was not only a world class scientist, but her character and passion were also unparalleled, especially in her unending search for new knowledge. She and Rob pioneered the detailed structure of parvoviruses which contributed to major advances in the field of gene therapy. Using x-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy they mapped the surface structures and symmetry of the viral capsid proteins that define the way various types of AAV interact with cellular receptors. This structural map led the McKenna lab to a collaboration with our group to use sera from animals and patients exposed to AAV in order to study the interaction of antibodies with the virus structural proteins. They also created a number of crucial reagents which identify unique epitopes of AAV. These studies paved the way for Mavis and longtime collaborator Aravind Asokan to launch StrideBio, Inc., which stands for Structured Inspired Design. The goal of StrideBio is to merge findings from the structural map of the AAV surface and cellular receptors with the clinically relevant goal of expanding the inclusion of patients in need of gene therapy drugs. These approaches will contribute to a therapeutic pipeline from a wide array of biopharma and pharma companies which are poised to transform the future of medical practice.

She was devoted to cultivating young scientists, mentoring trainees at all levels from high school students through postdoctoral associates and her faculty colleagues. Throughout her 20 years at UF, she chaired 22 Ph.D. and, 2 M.Sc. student thesis committees, and fulfilled countless other educational commitments at UF and around the world. Her commitment to teaching was honored with the College of Medicine’s Exemplary Teacher Award a record 10 times (2009-2019); she was the three-time recipient of the medical school Outstanding Teacher Award (2008-2010), and UF’s HHMI Distinguished Mentor Award (2006). In 2016, she was selected by graduate students to deliver the College of Medicine Interdisciplinary Program Commencement Address. In 2018, she was named the Innovator of the Year and the ASGCT honored Mavis with the Outstanding Achievement Award this past year (her lecture is available to watch here and showcases the incredible breadth of her life’s work).

Mavis possessed all the qualities that made a great mentor; she challenged the way students thought, she valued learning, she was inspirational, and most importantly she was supportive. She was not only dedicated to ensuring professional success of her trainees, but also their personal success. Long after students had graduated, she maintained a connection with them, eager to hear about all of life’s accomplishments – graduations, marriages, births, career achievements. Together, Mavis and Rob had a second family in addition to their two children that continues to gather for holiday parties and at the ASGCT Annual Meeting. The overwhelming feeling of her trainees is gratitude; they appreciate her time, her dedication to making them great scientists and even better people, and her unrelenting positivity. 

Our scientific community at the University of Florida learned of Mavis’s ALS diagnosis in 2013 following her participation in the March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon. Despite being an avid runner, she had difficulty on that day and later learned the cause of her fatigue. She later wrote “having trouble walking too fast or too far, but at least I can still walk.  Hope to be around for a while yet …” Since that time and over the next seven years, she did not address the issue much with colleagues other than in a matter-of-fact way that it was preferable to meet in her office to accommodate her mobility challenges. As the organizer of the International Parvovirus meeting in Miami there was a group that wanted to recognize and honor her efforts over the years. She steadfastly refused to accept any recognition that diverted attention away from the meeting. We can all learn from her focus and drive over her career and especially in the recent years when she managed to continue to advance her love for teaching and science in the face of a debilitating health challenge. She was always present in the moment and did not dwell on the past or try to predict the future. Rob was there at her side every moment on this amazing journey of discovery and love of science and their partnership. We will surely miss her insight and wisdom but be guided by her example to mentor the next generation of scientists who will indeed share her passion for discovery.

This tribute will be published in the April issue of Molecular Therapy.