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March 20, 2003
Marine Biological Laboratory Establishes Program in Global Infectious Diseases

Stephen Hajduk, Leading Parasitologist, Appointed Director

WOODS HOLE, MA - The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, has established an interdisciplinary program in Molecular Pathogenesis and Global Infectious Diseases. The program, funded by a $5 million grant from the Ellison Medical Foundation of Bethesda, Maryland, links scientists who study disease-causing organisms with experts in molecular biology, phylogenetics, and environmental microbiology and creates a one-of-a-kind international center for research and training dedicated to studying pathogens and the complex relationships they have with their hosts.

Leading parasitologist and molecular biologist Stephen L. Hajduk is director of the Program. Hajduk came to the MBL from the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he was a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and Senior Scientist in the AIDS Center and the Comprehensive Cancer Center. Hajduk's research program is broadly based in the area of molecular and biochemical basis of pathogenesis. Many of his studies focus on African trypanosomes, which cause human sleeping sickness, a fatal disease that has reemerged as a major health problem in sub-Saharan Africa.

"The importance of this research cannot be overstated," says William T. Speck, a physician and Director and CEO of the MBL "No single reason can explain our inability to eradicate or minimize the global impact of infectious agents on human health." In total, 25% of all deaths worldwide are caused by bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic pathogens. Every year, one to three million people die from malaria, a disease caused by the organism Plasmodium. Tuberculosis infects one person every second, and over the coming decade, at least 30 million will die from the disease.

The Global Infectious Disease Program is part of the MBL's Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution. Directed by Mitchell Sogin, the Bay Paul Center has an active research program with strong ties to infectious disease. Bay Paul Center scientists have contributed many important insights about the evolution of parasitic protists using modern genomic approaches. Recently they embarked upon the sequence analysis of the Giardia genome.  Excluding bacterial pathogens, Giardia is a principal cause of diarrheal disease in children and adults and therapeutic treatments for the parasite are almost as devastating as the disease itself. The availability of the Giardia genome may lead to the identification of novel treatments that have minimal side effects.

"The technology necessary to sequence entire genomes is found at very few institutions," says Hajduk. "The Global Infectious Diseases Program will build on the unique expertise of the Bay Paul Center to provide more traditional parasitologists the opportunity to expand their research and better apply genomics to their research areas." "This blending of genomics and parasitology will create a uniquely productive research environment and provide the catalyst for exciting new discoveries on the important pathogens."

The MBL has a rich history in studying the basic science of parasitism and infectious disease. Twenty years ago, the laboratory launched the field of molecular parasitology with the establishment of its Biology of Parasitism course, which continuously reinvents itself as it trains new investigators in this ever-expanding field.  As such, the Global Infectious Diseases Program includes a strong training component that will allow tropical health and infectious disease scientists from the world to conduct research they would be unable to do at their home institutions. According to Hajduk the Program’s unique strengths lie within its capability to integrate visiting scientists into the lab and give them access to instruments and technology that would otherwise be unavailable to them. "The broad impact that the training component will have on the field of infectious diseases globally is very exciting," he says.

In addition to his own studies on African sleeping sickness, Hajduk expects Program research in coming year to include work on malaria, leishmania, a widespread tropical disease transmitted by the sandfly which some scientists believe may be the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, and American trypanosomiasis or Chagas disease, a South American autoimmune disease caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi.

The Marine Biological Laboratory is an independent scientific institution, founded in 1888, that undertakes the highest level of creative research and education in biology, including the biomedical and environmental sciences.