THE ELLISON MEDICAL FOUNDATION Global Infectious Disease Program was active from 2001 to 2005. The program funded research on the basic molecular and cellular mechanisms aimed toward prevention of emerging infectious diseases. Although the Program accepted no new applications after January 2005, its funded research helped contribute to a greater molecular, genetic and genomic understanding of infectious diseases and the subtle weaknesses in disease microbes' inborn defenses.
Whoever made the remark, probably in the late 1950s, that “We can close the book on infectious disease” wins the prize for short-sightedness. Of course, the times were euphoric: venereal diseases, most childhood infections and many other bacterial and fungal ailments were being “conquered” via vaccines, antibiotics, insecticides and careful sanitation. If you get sick, just get a shot, take a pill. All would be well.
Unfortunately, the book on nasty diseases is still wide open. That’s because the world’s microbes are able to outmaneuver the medical sciences, rather quickly evolving defenses such as antibiotic resistance to keep infections going. And the bugs that deliver some of these diseases can also re-arm themselves; mosquitoes, for example, developed immunity to the pesticides, such as DDT, that could once control them.
These have been hard and disappointing lessons. But they’ve also stimulated deeper, more detailed research into the basic biology of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Based on the expanding powers of molecular biology, researchers are gaining a far more intimate understanding of how the microbes find, invade and sicken their targets. Some scientists are also learning how bacteria and parasites protect themselves from nature’s strongest weapons, the body’s built-in, multi-layered, responsive immune systems.
Marcelo Carlos Sousa, at the University of Colorado, for instance, is working on ways to detect and overcome the antibiotic resistance that arises in bacteria. Mary X. O’Riordan, at the University of Michigan Medical School, is sorting out how bacteria try to regulate the host cell’s innate immune response. And Ronald P. Taylor, at the University of Virginia, is collaborating with John Waitumbi, in Kenya, trying to understand and correct childhood anemia that arises despite a low malaria parasite burden.
On the insect side of the problem, John Carlson, at Yale University, is working on development of novel insect repellants and insect traps, aiming for better and less environmentally damaging control of disease vectors.
At the same time, several researchers are striving to develop new animal models for laboratory use. Jeffrey Gordon, at the Washington University School of Medicine, sees evidence that transparent zebrafish can help understand what happens in host-bacterial interactions in the gut. And Anita Sil, at the University of California, San Francisco is exploring how Histoplasma capsulatum is able to detoxify a defensive molecule, nitric oxide.
The prion-based disorders, including mad cow disease, are also under study, with special attention paid to how in rare instances these protein-folding-based diseases can leap from one species to another, say from sheep with scrapie into cows that get bovine spongiform encephalitis.
The EMF Global Infectious Disease Program ceased accepting new applications in 2005, but the scientists that received EMF support continue making advances in research projects initiated with funding provided through Senior Scholar and New Scholar in Global Infectious Disease Awards in years 2001 - 2004.