U receives $1 million grant to coordinate biodefense research

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded the University a $1 million grant to begin coordinating biodefense research with other universities.

The grant was announced along with $350 million that will be given over the next five years to establish eight regional centers to study biodefense and infectious disease, according to the HHS Web site.

The University was not allocated money for a regional center, but this grant could lay the groundwork for obtaining one, said University microbiology professor Patrick Schlievert, who will oversee much of the research.

Using the grant money, the University will begin coordinating with researchers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Schlievert said people should be concerned about biochemical attacks involving agents such as anthrax or rabbit fever – which will both be studied at the regional centers – but concerns should be within reason.

People should not be too alarmed, but a biochemical attack will inevitably occur sometime, he said.

Schlievert cited an event a few years ago in the Basic Sciences and Biomedical Engineering Facility as an example of overall susceptibility to bioterrorism.

“Somebody dropped something off one of the floors into the atrium area. That is essentially a small bioterrorism event because that was a microbe, and nobody knew what it was,” he said. Schlievert said no one was organized to deal with the microbe.

“It took a day to figure out what it was. Unless people are trained to figure these things out rapidly, it will take time and people will be scared by it,” he said.

However, U.S. biodefense preparation is moving in the right direction, Schlievert said.

“People should feel some comfort that the U.S. is getting its act together in being able to respond,” he said. Schlievert said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coordination of state health departments for a common response capability, as well as the increased pace of infectious disease research, are examples of the country moving toward a higher state of readiness.

The University will be a lead institution along with The Ohio State University in coordinating a regional collaboration to research the most dangerous biochemical agents, Schlievert said.

Schlievert said in two years the University will apply to get a regional biodefense research center.

He also said he wants to train doctors and others how to respond in the event of a biochemical attack.

“The health department has first response in the state, but what happens if they are overwhelmed? Who helps them?” Schlievert said. He said others who were trained could serve as a biochemical backup force in a scenario where quick response would be essential.

“We know how to work with the organisms. We know how to isolate and characterize them,” he said.

Ashley Haase, the University’s microbiology department head, said attention to infectious disease is long overdue, and the new attention being paid to biodefense will also assist in curbing diseases that spread easily in an increasingly connected and globalized world.

“With rapid travel, any disease that is incubating can be moved around the world fairly quickly,” he said. “That’s the transformation that is taking place, and if you don’t have good surveillance systems in place, you are clearly at risk.”