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Scientists Aim to Protect the Public from 'Silent Killers'

COLUMBUS, Ohio – If one considers the body a battleground between infectious bugs and the human immune system, then a highly specialized group of medical researchers at Ohio State University could be considered something akin to a guerrilla army – a small band of unconventional fighters literally trying to save the world.

These scientists work in the trenches of molecular science, conducting research that emphasizes protecting the public from a range of airborne and food-borne illnesses, biological weapons and even everyday viral infections.

They work under the umbrella of the recently established Center for Microbial Interface Biology at Ohio State University, a multidisciplinary program dedicated to understanding how infectious agents and human bodies interact – with the goal of preventing the most damaging interactions from occurring in the first place.

The center’s more than 50 member researchers currently emphasize respiratory infections; highly adapted human microorganisms that exploit their hosts to aid in their reproduction; and specific types of chronic inflammation that result from infection.

“We host a number of cutting-edge scientific programs aimed at protecting the public from the silent killers that cause infection,” said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, director of the division of infectious diseases at Ohio State University Medical Center and director of the center he founded in late 2002. “There are research programs in tuberculosis, typhoid fever, viral infections, a variety of upper and lower airway infections, parasitic infection, staph and strep infections, and many others. We’re performing science that is leading the way to new diagnostic tests, new therapies and new vaccines.

“We’re interested in that initial encounter when the silent killers meet their host and the short- and long-term consequences of that interaction. We need to know everything about that battlefield and what the microbe and host bring to bear on the interaction,” Schlesinger said.

The center’s existence reflects the scientific community’s recognition that it’s time to get more serious about understanding infectious diseases, and to take a more comprehensive and global approach to studying them.

“Small steps are common in research. That’s no longer acceptable. We need to take research in fundamentally new directions, work effectively as teams and be strategic in more rapidly developing new diagnostic tests and cures,” Schlesinger said.

And he doesn’t mean global in a figurative sense. “It’s naïve to think that infectious agents in the world aren’t floating around the United States,” he said, noting that an estimated 2 percent of the world’s people no longer live in their hometown. “That’s nearly 200 million people on the move. It’s a clear indicator of the travel potential of infectious agents. A global society represents a new challenge for tackling infectious diseases.”

Because of this, even diseases considered historic – such as the plague and yellow fever – are still active and could still be a risk to the U.S. population. And those considered confined to remote parts of the world – malaria or tuberculosis, for example – are among the diseases changing over time to become more resistant to existing therapies. “In fact, TB infects a third of the world’s population,” Schlesinger said, “and an enormous number of the 40 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS also have TB, a deadly combination.”

Scientists in the center work at the molecular level of the science – from the perspective of both the human host and the microbe. “Identifying the so-called ‘molecular targets’ is key to the development of new cures against disease,” Schlesinger said. Many organisms live in the body all of the time, but can wake up and stage their attack when the immune system is weakened – such as in patients with cancer, transplants or other critical illnesses. In these cases, the treatments are prolonged and can have serious side effects.

“It’s very important to understand this process. Sometimes the microbes are so sophisticated that they learn how to diminish the body’s effectiveness against them,” Schlesinger said. “We need to know a lot more about how these infections occur in humans. That’s the only way we can protect people from these silent killers.”

The researchers are not only focused on humans, but instead are studying problems in the environment and animals as well. “Often these are the sources of the development of drug resistance,” Schlesinger said.

Ohio State is also a lead institution in a National Institutes of Health-funded program intended to increase the country’s research resources needed to counter bioterror threats. Projects involve studies of the bacterial causes of anthrax and tularemia, an organism that normally causes an infection known as rabbit fever but could be used as a potential biological weapon. Ohio State has ample state-of-the-art facilities and programs to perform such research safely.

“Funding for infectious disease research is not particularly plentiful, and there are not adequate economic incentives for the pharmaceutical industry to invest in antibiotic development,” Schlesinger noted. Public-private partnerships are seen as having the most potential to fund development of diagnostics, therapies and vaccines for emerging infectious diseases.

“We learned from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 that, as a society, we need to be much better prepared. The good news is that we are more vigilant and generally more prepared to handle the next pandemic. But we have to keep educating the public to maintain that awareness.

“You really don’t eradicate infectious diseases, you just tame them. And they keep re-emerging. And if we’re not smart, they’ll win the battle, not humans.”

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