Emory Report

September 25, 2000

 Volume 53, No.5

New center attacks diseases

By Michael Terrazas

Before Les Real left Indiana University to come to Emory in 1998, he looked from afar at his soon-to-be employer and saw an institution uniquely situated to design and build a world-class instrument for studying and battling disease, one that complements the traditional, patient-centered approach of modern clinical medicine.

That vision is slowly taking shape as the new Center for Disease Ecology (CDE) holds its first lecture series this fall. Directed by Real, the center approaches disease not just as microbes to be defeated, but as evolutionary organisms as complex as anything that walks, crawls or flies.

"Disease ecology is the application of ecological and evolutionary principles to understanding the emergence and spread of infectious diseases," said Real, Candler Professor of Biology. "There's been such a faith in the traditional medical paradigm that we often have ignored the ecological and evolutionary context of disease-and it's coming back to haunt us."

Real cited the emergence of new diseases-such as the Hanta and West Nile viruses in the United States-as well as the re-emergence of diseases thought previously to be controlled-such as malaria, cholera and tuberculosis-as proof of the need for a complementary approach to fighting them.

And Emory is at the hub of several organizations poised to contribute: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Yerkes Primate Center and the University's Health Science Center all stand to contribute and gain from CDE, as well as other, less obvious institutions.

For example, Randy Packard of the college's history department is on the CDE steering committee, along with faculty from anthropology, biology, public health, medicine and the CDC. Indeed, since the center focuses on disease as a population phenomenon, much like human culture itself, it would seem there are few departments on the campus that would not have something to contribute.

"The easy answer is that there isn't any discipline that doesn't affect our understanding of infectious disease-there are legal angles, political, economic, historical and anthropological," Real said. "But the more realistic answer is, you can't do everything. So I hope the CDE would be a complement to other centers and research groups on campus."

Such centers include Packard's Center for Health and Society, as well as the graduate school's doctoral program in population biology, ecology and evolution.

The CDE has yet to be officially approved by the Board of Trustees, but biology chair John Lucchesi does not foresee any difficulties. The activity from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health-who have both sent out requests for applications in disease ecology-shows that this is a field in which Emory needs to get involved.

"There is a realization that as our world population increases, emergent diseases are going to occur at a greater and greater frequency," said Lucchesi, also a Candler Professor of Biology. "It goes without saying that with our proximity and connections with the CDC on one hand, and the existence of this very strong school of public health on the other, it's just a natural for this center to be developed."

As a model for the new center, Real said he is looking toward the NSF's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, Calif. Within a few years, Real hopes to put together research working groups, such as the one he chairs for NCEAS on predicting spacial dynamics of infectious disease.

"Ultimately I'd like to bring in post-docs, have faculty sabbatical leaves and make this the world center, intellectually and physically, to tackle these problems," Real said. "Emory can be a model for the rest of the world."

The next offering in the CDE's lecture series, from the CDC's Duane Gubler on "The Resurgence of Epidemic Vector-Borne Diseases as Public Health Programs in the 21st Century," will be Sept. 28 at 4 p.m. in the Rita Anne Rollins Room of the School of Public Health.

For more information on the CDE or its lecture series, call the biology department at 404-727-6292.

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