Global Navigation Element.

Winter/Spring 2006 Vol. 6 No. 1

Table of Contents


Participants at the third annual Futures conference, held November 2005 in Irvine, Calif., photos by Paul R. Kennedy Third Futures Conference Launches a Genomic Attack on Infectious Diseases

By Kiryn Haslinger

One question on everyone's mind each winter is how to avoid getting the flu. Influenza and its fellow infectious diseases -- which range from moderately troublesome bugs such as the common cold to lethal assassins like HIV -- are collectively the most potent source of illness and mortality across the world. Just as understanding the criminal mind may be the most effective way to deter human villains, a similarly penetrating approach could be applied against these microbial bad guys.

This broad imperative provided the impetus to bring together 150 researchers, policymakers, foundation representatives, and science journalists last November at a four-day conference to discuss solutions to the growing problem of infectious diseases using the field of genomics. The third annual conference of the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, "The Genomic Revolution: Implications for Treatment and Control of Infectious Disease," invited its participants to develop creative ways to attack dangerous microbes through understanding their fundamental genomic compositions.

The trademark of the Futures Initiative is interdisciplinary research. "Discovery comes at the interstices of disciplines," said NAE President Wm. A. Wulf. With that, he introduced a series of tutorial sessions intended to explain the state-of-the-science of various specialties, so that researchers could communicate clearly with one another across disciplines. In one tutorial, Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, discussed genomics, structural biology, and rational vaccine design. Using genomics, he asked, "How can we create new paradigms to create highly effective vaccines?" He stressed that the key would be gaining a better understanding of gene function and evolution. In another session, Stanford University professor David Relman declared, "We are 10 parts microbial and one part human," to emphasize the dynamic interplay between humans and microbes, before taking conference participants on a tour of disease epidemiology.

Participants at the third annual Futures conference, held November 2005 in Irvine, Calif., photos by Paul R. Kennedy
Participants at the third annual Futures conference, held November 2005 in Irvine, Calif., photos by Paul R. Kennedy
Participants at the third annual Futures conference, held November 2005 in Irvine, Calif., photos by Paul R. Kennedy

Interspersed with other technical tutorials on topics such as human genetic variation and bioinformatics were talks about the societal impact of infectious disease. Austin Demby, a senior staff fellow at the Global AIDS Program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed the needs of developing countries and the unique delivery and implementation issues that face parts of the world most affected by infectious diseases, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

The tutorials served as a stepping-off point for the participants to address concrete problems in small working groups. Throughout eight hours of discussion, researchers brainstormed about potential plans for designing technologies to improve rapid response to disease, developing an inexpensive diagnostic test for pathogens, preventing the next pandemic flu, creating a device to detect and identify pathogens, and sequencing an individual's genome for under $1,000. Other groups focused on such vital topics as determining the role of public health in integrating genomics into disease control and devising new therapies by harnessing natural genetic variation in disease resistance.

These working groups provided a fertile environment for communication among scientists, engineers, and medical researchers who discovered a valuable opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration. The Futures Initiative aims to spark such relationships and offers a rewarding incentive for researchers to do so: up to $75,000 to fund innovative research and continue collaborative dialogues that emerged from the conference. The initiative supplies $1 million annually for such seed grants, awarded competitively to conference participants.

Another major goal of the initiative is to encourage communication of scientific discoveries and ideas to the public. At the conference, a 2005 National Academies Communication Award was given to John Barry for his book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. Another was given to Gareth Cook for his coverage of the national debate on stem cells in The Boston Globe, and a third award was bestowed to Thomas Levenson for his television series on the evolution of life in the cosmos, WGBH NOVA's "Origins: Back to the Beginning." The $20,000 awards recognize excellence in reporting and communicating science, engineering, and medicine to the general public, and the winners were selected from more than 200 entries.

In a tutorial on conducting team science, Mary E. Lindstrom, vice provost of research at the University of Washington, warned, "If you're going to take risks, you cannot expect 100 percent success." The Futures Initiative has made valuable investments in scientific risk-taking since it was launched in 2003, lauding and supporting bold efforts in both scientific research and communication.

Kiryn Haslinger, a science writer based in New York City, holds a master's degree in theoretical chemistry. She is the chief correspondent for computational biology and bioinformatics at the New York Academy of Sciences and previously an editorial assistant to James D. Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. For more information on the Futures Initiative and this conference, visit <>.

Previous Table of Contents Next

Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences