New $13.8M center will study infectious diseases, pandemics

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As researchers around the world continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, most agree on one issue: If history is any indication, there’s another pandemic coming.

“Since 2000, we’ve had three coronaviruses that are new to humans cause outbreaks or the current pandemic. And we’ve had three influenza viruses try to make the jump from animals to humans, and one succeeded,” said Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology and an infectious disease expert at the School of Public Health.

“So what’s the likelihood that we see another pandemic in our lives? I’ll say the likelihood is pretty high.”

To better prepare for it, maximizing U-M’s breadth of scientific expertise and collaboration across campus and supporting the increase of human and lab infrastructure, the U-M Biosciences Initiative is awarding $13.8 million over five years to the new Michigan Center for Infectious Disease Threats.

The center, led by Gordon, will allow researchers from public health, engineering, medicine, evolutionary biology and social sciences to work across disciplines on issues key to infectious disease preparedness and response, including public health workforce development, increasing lab capacity, expanding protein production for disease-testing capacity and adding testing of zoonotic pathogens.

“The overall objective of the center is to connect researchers here on campus and better prepare the University of Michigan both locally and globally for pandemic preparedness and response, to create a community here on campus revolving around infectious disease,” Gordon said.

“The center will create synergies across our multiple schools and departments and make us competitive for the recruitment of scientists to fill critical research area gaps.”

The center programs will include:

  • A Workforce Development Initiative to strengthen the strategic skills and capacity of the public health workforce to develop integrated training in public health practices to address infectious disease threats in Michigan.
  • In collaboration with the Medical School and SPH, the center will develop enhanced Biosafety Level 3 capabilities, dramatically increasing the resources available to the U-M infectious disease community. Activities to expand the state-of-the-art BSL3 containment space have already begun, and it’s expected to open to investigators in early 2022.
  • The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Museum’s Pathogen Biorepository will leverage the collection’s 100,000 tissue samples already in existence and add to the collection of samples for infectious disease detection. While the initial focus will be on bats, rodents and aquatic birds, it is expected to include all wildlife groups.
  • The Protein Production Initiative will provide a rapid-response facility for the production of proteins from emergent pathogens for use in serological testing and research, which was key during the early testing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. This program uses expertise from the Life Sciences Institute’s Center for Structural Biology and Center for Cryoelectron Microscopy.

Gordon said many, including Bill Gates in a famous 2015 TEDx video, had warned that the United States was not ready for the next pandemic. Then, SARS-CoV-2 happened.

“The world was not ready for the pandemic, our nation was not ready for the pandemic and our campus was not ready for the pandemic,” she said.

Gordon said U-M has exceptionally strong programs in many areas required to make it a leader in emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, such as virology, immunology, bioengineering, infectious disease epidemiology, mathematical modeling and pharmaceutical sciences.

And the university also is a nationally leading center for social science research and public policy, areas that are not traditionally thought of as directly related to infectious disease, but which have been critical for pandemic response, she said.

Until now, there was no structure to align these efforts. Roger Cone, director of the Biosciences Initiative, said, “The MCIDT is a great example of what the initiative was designed to do, bring together scientists across the breadth of U-M to address critical emerging problems in the life sciences.”

“We hope that with this funding, when the next pandemic hits, we will be at the ready, with all the resources of the university at our disposal to provide the best response possible,” Gordon said.

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