Staying One Jump Ahead of Deadly Viruses
As director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and the principal investigator of the Galveston National Laboratory, Dr. Stanley M. Lemon fights a daily battle against the potential ravages of bioterrorism and of Mother Nature. He and his colleagues study emerging infectious diseases that, whether they occur naturally or via microbes that can be altered and used by terrorists, could have profound human and economic consequences. "Fortunately," Dr. Lemon says, "in addressing the natural diseases you also address bioterrorism."
As a Biosafety Level 4 lab, the Galveston National Laboratory allows UTMB researchers to safely study the most dangerous viral agents. Since its opening in 2008, the lab has enabled them to work with other scientists across the nation to combat the deadliest diseases and bioterrorist threats, while training the next generation of infectious disease specialists. "The BSL-4 lab has been a tremendous step for the infectious disease program here," says Dr. Lemon, "and it has really catapulted UTMB to the forefront nationally and internationally in the infectious disease community. We get requests almost every day from scientists around the world who want to come here to access our facilities and work with our faculty."
Research is currently aimed at developing therapies, vaccines and diagnostic tests for naturally occurring diseases such as SARS, West Nile encephalitis and avian influenza, as well as for microbes that might be employed by terrorists. The goal is not just to protect Americans from a possible bioterrorist attack, but to help people in the regions of the world where emerging diseases frequently occur in nature. Not knowing which diseases might emerge when or where, researchers focus on prevention and preparedness, since the viruses that cause these diseases evolve rapidly. "It takes only a few minutes for a virus to replicate itself," Lemon points out, "and we have to stay one jump ahead of that."
"Training physicians and healthcare providers to be able to recognize something [a natural pandemic or bioterrorist attack], having in place a public health infrastructure in place that can respond; having the vaccines, the antibiotic countermeasures for something like anthrax; having a facility like this that can serve in an emergency, standby-laboratory function in the event of a bioterrorist attack or a natural pandemic — those are really important steps," he adds. "It's prevention. You're putting money in the bank for the future and you're hoping that you're not going to need it."