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New program to advance infectious diseases research

BY: LEIGH MACMILLAN

8/25/2011 - A new Program in Microbial Pathogenesis at Vanderbilt University aims to strengthen interactions between investigators who study the biology of infectious diseases.

The program, part of the Division of Host-Pathogen Interactions within the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, will enhance fundamental discovery research and also address the growing need for new therapeutics to treat infectious diseases.

Despite the development of effective vaccines and antibiotics, infectious diseases remain the leading cause of illness and death worldwide. And antibiotic resistance is an increasing problem.

Eric Skaar, Ph.D.

Eric Skaar, Ph.D.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re approaching a post-antibiotic era, where many antibiotics no longer work,” said Eric Skaar, Ph.D., MPH, associate professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, and director of the new program. “At the same time, we’re making significant headway in studying host-microbe interactions using a variety of emerging technologies.”

Technologies in imaging, human genetics, chemical biology and other areas are being applied to infectious disease biology, Skaar said.

“Infectious diseases are a global problem with tremendous public health impact, and Vanderbilt has amazing resources and talent to approach this problem. It’s an exciting time in infectious disease research.”

The new program builds on a tradition of excellence in microbiology and immunology research at Vanderbilt.

“We at Vanderbilt are fortunate to have Eric Skaar to lead this important new program,” said Samuel A. Santoro, M.D., Ph.D., Dorothy B. and Theodore R. Austin Professor and chair of the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology. “Dr. Skaar is a visionary, energetic scientist who embraces multidisciplinary approaches.

“This new program will not only expand the existing strengths of the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology in microbial pathogenesis, but it will also engage and enhance the cohesiveness of investigators across the university. The program will also serve as a catalyst for the recruitment to Vanderbilt of additional investigators focusing on this important problem.”

Skaar said his role as program director is “community organizer” for investigators who focus on any aspect of microbes — bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites — and the mechanisms they use to cause disease. He hopes that once the community begins routinely interacting, for example at seminars and journal clubs, collaborative opportunities between program members will emerge.

Program members include investigators in the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, the Department of Biological Sciences, the Department of Medicine — Divisions of Infectious Diseases, Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, and Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, and the Department of Pediatrics — Division of Infectious Diseases.

The program will draw on resources including the Center for Human Genetics Research, the Mass Spectrometry Research Center, the Vanderbilt University Institute of Imaging Science and the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology to advance discovery and therapeutic development.

“The Program in Microbial Pathogenesis stems from Vanderbilt’s ongoing strategic investment in basic discovery sciences,” said Susan Wente, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research and senior associate dean for Biomedical Sciences. “It will position us for high impact scientific discoveries in infection biology — advances that we will leverage to develop new drugs to treat a variety of infectious diseases.”

For information about the program and a listing of members to date, go to http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/root/vumc.php?site=vmcpathology&doc=35552.

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