November 21, 2014

Editor's Page

A New Kind of Ivory Tower

Mark R. Howard | 11/1/2010

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor
At the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, they don't give tours of the working labs on the upper floors of the institute's new, $60-million building. Access, even for researchers, comes only after an FBI background check. Even with that authorization, entry means passing a security officer, a handprint reader and a coded keypad. Before entering an actual lab room, researchers must know another keypad code. Then they must take off their street clothes and put on a surgical scrub-like outfit and a gas mask-type respirator to avoid inhaling any of the organisms they may be studying — nasty bugs like the West Nile Virus or MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in locker rooms and hospitals that can produce fatal septic shock. When the researchers leave the labs, their scrubs are destroyed, and they have to shower before dressing again.

The work in the labs is high-tech stuff: Infecting a mosquito with a virus like West Nile, for example, then killing the insect and examining at the DNA level how well it picked up the virus and what factors make it an effective host for transmitting the virus to people.

Most broadly, the institute, which UF created in 2006, is interested in any new organism that causes disease in humans, animals and plants, including the citrus greening disease that plagues Florida's agricultural industry. It also investigates well-known organisms like dengue fever that re-emerge and produce a large number of new cases — an outbreak of that illness has occurred in the Florida Keys recently after a 70-year hiatus.

Researchers need to understand both how pathogens function biologically and how they spread physically. Many projects, for example, involve geographers who study weather patterns and computer whizzes who map freighter traffic and airline schedules — both factors in how a disease-causing organism like Avian flu can spread in today's world of interlaced global commerce and tourism.

The stakes are significant. The "heartwater" disease that kills cattle, sheep and goats, for example, is widespread in Africa and the West Indies. The ticks that carry the parasite could arrive in Florida via migratory birds, imported livestock or an exotic reptile brought here as a pet. An outbreak in Florida or anywhere in the U.S. would be catastrophic to the domestic livestock industry, and understanding how it might get here and how to stop it if it does is a matter of no small importance.

Along with exotic illnesses, the institute's research has extended to the day-to-day health of its own community in Gainesville. Last year, it wanted to test research from Japan that indicated that schoolchildren were the primary transmitters of illness, particularly influenza. While much dissemination of flu vaccine focuses on getting it to the vulnerable elderly, mathematical models suggested that if about 70% of schoolchildren received the flu vaccine, transmission into the general population could be reduced and possibly even stopped.

The institute partnered with AvMed Health Plans, the Alachua school district, UF's College of Medicine and local community groups in a campaign that saw more than 65% of preschool, elementary and middle school children receive the nasal FluMist vaccine. UF students, including nursing and pharmacy students and several sororities, helped in getting parents to sign the consent forms that were required for children to get the vaccine. The emergence of the H1N1 virus along with traditional flu strains last year has clouded the analysis of how effective the immunization effort was, but the institute operated effectively outside the ivory tower mode and also proved that it is possible to get very high levels of immunization in a target population like schoolchildren — a major challenge for public health officials. The institute is repeating the immunization effort this year.

While the institute's scientific reach is broad, its full-time staff is relatively small. Dr. Glenn Morris, the institute's director, says his job is to put together teams of researchers from across the university to develop projects that can compete for funding through the National Institutes of Health and other sources. A given project might include researchers from the schools of public health, pharmacy, entomology, geography and veterinary medicine along with medical school types.

This is notable because once upon a time, Morris would have focused on building the institute as a silo unto itself, not as a facilitator reaching across department lines.
In that respect, the institute's organizational structure reflects how the entire economic model of public universities is changing. Traditionally, higher-ed schools operated off some combination of tuition and state funding. But state funding is increasingly pinched — UF has lost 25% of its base state funding over the past three years.

And so in addition to things like discretionary tuition, Florida's big public schools now need entrepreneurial faculties that generate revenue, whether by attracting federal and private research dollars or by spinning off research discoveries into companies that deliver licensing or equity income. Last year, for example, UF faculty attracted $678 million in grant awards — nearly $100 million more than what the state appropriated for the university. One headline for the institute this past year was a $1.5-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — the foundation's first such direct grant to UF — for malaria-related research.

This new economic dynamic, with its increased focus on revenue-generation and economic return, will continue to exert enormous influence on the state's entire public higher-ed system, from the big universities down through what used to be community colleges. The ivory tower is changing fast. In the future, for better or worse, that tower's ground floor is going to look a little more like a bank vault.

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