Biodesign site to open. ASU chief says it will help fight killer bugs.

Biodesign site to open. ASU chief says it will help fight killer bugs.

December 14, 2004

December 13, 2004

As Arizona State University today dedicates the first of its Biodesign Institute buildings, Director George Poste is sounding a public health warning.

Echoing experts around the world, he says an influenza pandemic rivaling the horror that killed millions in 1918 could hit the United States and kill as many as 2 million people.

The institute and similar research facilities can help find vaccines to fight highly contagious infectious diseases, said Poste, former director of scientific research for international drug company SmithKline Beecham and an authority on infectious diseases.

But he warned it will take some effort to persuade pharmaceutical companies to manufacture those vaccines.

Although "ASU and other universities can conduct the research part" of finding new vaccines, research is only part of the answer, Poste said.

"In recent years, six pharmaceutical companies have dropped out of the business because people didn't want to pay the price needed for them to make a profit," he said.

The Biodesign Institute marks a big step in an effort by ASU and the Legislature to turn Arizona into a center for the biotechnology industry. Final project costs are expected to run nearly $500 million.

The four-story building to be dedicated at 8:30 a.m. today cost $73 million and will provide 170,000 square feet of laboratories and offices for 250 researchers and 30 support staff studying DNA extraction, nanotechnology research, atomic force microscopy, immunology, and virology. The second of four planned buildings will be finished next fall.

Poste said unless the nation and the world awaken to the threat of the rapid spread of diseases like influenza, SARS and HIV, "a catastrophe is a very sure thing."

He said the world's worst enemy is complacency caused by rapid advances in medicine over the past several decades.

"The popular conception that the battle against infectious disease is being won is a delusion," Poste said.

"We have become complacent and are neglecting the resurgence of both traditional infections, which are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, together with the emergence of new threats," he added. "In the last 25 years, 30 new bugs that infect humans have been identified; HIV has been the most devastating."

Poste said among the most pressing concerns is the spread of an already identified strain of avian influenza virus known as bird flu. Scientists fear it will mutate and enter the human population. Other experts and officials, including outgoing U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and World Health Organization regional director Shigeru Omi, have voiced similar concerns about the avian flu.

Poste added that pharmaceutical companies must be convinced it's in their interest to return to producing vaccines.

He said people must accept "that vaccines are going to cost more money (to manufacture) and we must give companies the incentive to get into business, and we must cap frivolous tort suits."

Arizona health officials such as state health department epidemiologist David Engelthaler say Poste's concern about pandemics is realistic. Engelthaler said the current flu-vaccine shortage "shows that Poste is right about how bad it's been to lose these manufacturers of vaccine. We are down to one, an American-owned company with a plant in England."

Engelthaler said finding ways to keep an infectious disease from sweeping Arizona and possibly killing thousands "is something we're working on very hard."

"We're working with county health departments to come up with a comprehensive statewide plan," he said.

Engelthaler said the plan includes keeping "first responders" - including hospitals, health department and health care providers - educated about what diseases the "worldwide network of medical surveillance" is finding.

"We need to be able to tell providers what to look for," Engelthaler said. "And when we see a case, to clamp down, isolate the person, take steps to keep it from spreading."

Engelthaler said the worldwide cooperation during the SARS outbreak is an example of how a potentially disastrous infectious disease can be kept from sweeping the globe.

"The worldwide public health systems saw it, evaluated it and realized what was coming," he said. "We didn't have a treatment for SARS, and it caused hot spots. But with quarantine and isolation, we clamped down on it and killed the outbreak."


Written by: Joe Caspermeyer