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Summer 2004 Vol. 4 No. 2

Table of Contents


Institute of Medicine

Photo by BachrachLooking at Diseases
in New Ways

How do we mobilize science to protect us from future biological and medical disasters -- including those caused by terrorists? In this critical endeavor, our nation must make a special effort to use the full range of pertinent resources. Prominent among these are many top biological researchers who do not ordinarily study pathogens yet who could significantly augment the expertise that virologists and microbiologists bring to combating microbial threats.

As a test case, National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts and I recently convened a diverse group of scientists to focus on strategies to discover new antivirals against smallpox. We chose smallpox because the variola virus that causes this disease ranks at the top of CDC's list of high-threat agents, due to its extreme lethality to humans and ease of transmission. While naturally occurring smallpox has been eradicated, the world needs effective, new countermeasures in case of a terrorist-directed outbreak.

Our exercise began with a handful of experts on poxviruses and antiviral drugs educating 25 invited specialists from other fields of research, including cellular, structural, computational, and biochemical biology. The group was limited to about 30 to give everyone a chance to engage actively in focused discussion groups during a two-day workshop.

The results -- published in the July 12th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- were remarkable. Specialists who previously knew very little about variola or other poxviruses found the exercise invigorating and productive. The virologists revealed a set of scientific puzzles that seem ripe for new discoveries. In particular, the intricate, highly specialized process of variola replication provides numerous openings for new drugs that can stop viral infection without damaging healthy human tissue.

We believe that leading investigators from diverse fields should be more routinely invited and inspired to seek new means of counteracting infectious diseases. Progress that is made on controlling pathogens like those a terrorist might use can also have a spillover benefit to research on other important, naturally occurring diseases -- including HIV, influenza, the SARS-associated coronavirus, monkeypox, West Nile virus, and avian flu. By creating opportunities for collaboration among scientists who normally do not interact or know of each others' work, the National Academies can help promote innovative strategies to solve critical problems in infectious disease, and thereby improve health and enhance our national security.

President, Institute of Medicine

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences