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Dean's Corner

The New York metropolitan area is a tough place to live and work with its noise, traffic, and crowds. Those are minor annoyances, however, compared to the area's vulnerability to infectious disease and bioterror assaults. Recent examples include the anthrax attacks of 2001, the emergence of the West Nile virus and Lyme disease, and the rise in tuberculosis.

So what can be done? Led by infectious disease specialist, Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health and neurology at P&S, investigators in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, are banding together in a consortium to protect the region with a research-oriented biodefense plan. The Northeast Biodefense Center will be coordinated at three sites: Columbia's Mailman School, the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health, and the Academic Medicine Development Company (AMDeC), an organization created to facilitate biomedical research in New York.

Key members of the biodefense center include the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Cornell, Mount Sinai, New York University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the Public Health Research Institute, Rockefeller University, Yale University, the State University of New York campuses at Stony Brook and Buffalo, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Plum Island Animal Disease Center, and Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M.

The center applied in mid-January to become one of four NIH-funded biodefense centers in the country. In the eastern U.S. region, Dr. Lipkin's group is competing against research teams led by Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and possibly another consortium in the Southeast. The NIH will use part of the $11.7 billion (about 5 percent of the total NIH research budget) it earmarked for bioterrorism and emerging infectious disease research after the anthrax outbreak to fund these centers.

Under the plan, members of the center will share resources, expertise, and facilities to promote biodefense research. An important asset will be access to the animal infectious disease laboratories on Plum Island, located between New York and Connecticut in the Long Island Sound. Researchers will be able to investigate pathogenesis, vaccines, and therapeutics not only in small animal models such as mice and rats, but also in large natural hosts such as horses, sheep, cattle, and pigs.

The investigators will focus primarily on diseases that can spread from animals to people, such as Ebola, anthrax, and plague, because infectious agents often appear first in domesticated animals and wildlife. West Nile virus, for example, appeared in birds before jumping to humans. Smallpox, which only occurs in humans, also will be studied.

"Our goal with the center is to mobilize the best scientists in the region to work together on developing strategies for diagnosis, short- and long-term interventions, containment, and prophylaxis," Dr. Lipkin says.

The center also is linked to efforts to build a large biocontainment facility, a specialized laboratory that prevents dangerous, highly infectious pathogens from leaving the lab, in the Wadsworth Center in Albany.

Dr. Lipkin, who led the team that identified the West Nile virus in the brains of encephalitis victims in New York state in 1999, came to Columbia last summer from the University of California at Irvine. He made the move to have the opportunity to coordinate efforts such as the biodefense center and another center focused on neurodevelopmental disorders.

He also directs the Columbia Center for Immunopathogenesis and Infectious Diseases at Mailman where investigators use molecular biology methods for pathogen discovery and to explore the role of immune and microbial factors in neurologic and neuropsychiatric diseases. The center has research grants from the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Ellison Medical Foundation, where Dr. Lipkin is a senior scholar in global infectious diseases.

He has found evidence in animal models, such as mice, rats, sheep, and primates, that microbial infections play a role in some central nervous system disorders and certain forms of cancer and diabetes. The infections may occur early in life and be difficult to detect at a later stage, so Dr. Lipkin is conducting prospective studies in which participants susceptible to a disease are enrolled years before disease symptoms appear. Similar approaches are being used to investigate the role of microbes in type 1 diabetes mellitus and some types of cancer.

"We try to develop tools that have general applicability to look at the role of environmental factors in a variety of acute and chronic diseases," Dr. Lipkin says. "Columbia is a remarkable institution in a remarkable community. The collegiality and intellectual rigor here allow us to pursue questions that cannot be addressed elsewhere."