Biodefense research is focus of new Midwest Center

The United States Department of Health and Human Services announced today that Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis will anchor a multi-institutional Midwest Regional Center for Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research (MRCE). The center will be funded by a five-year, $35 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The founding members of the MRCE also include Saint Louis University School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Missouri, Columbia, and the Midwest Research Institute of Kansas City.

“We see the MRCE as a tremendous opportunity for the region to take the lead in this field and hope it will provide a framework to facilitate collaborative research in biodefense and emerging infectious diseases between academia and industry,” says Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., M.D., director of the MRCE and professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. “We hope to have a tangible impact on security in this region.”

The MRCE’s mission is to support basic and translational research in critical areas of biodefense and emerging infectious diseases throughout the Midwest, which includes Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

The center will concentrate on expanding current research efforts in biodefense, identifying new areas of need in the field and expanding facilities to support biodefense research. They also hope to attract present and future investigators into the field.

For example, the team’s initial research effort will focus on a type of virus in humans called poxvirus infections, which includes diseases such as smallpox. Their ultimate goals are to improve the safety of vaccines and to develop new antiviral therapies. The MRCE also is supporting work on the West Nile Virus, the plague and the control of aerosolized bioweapons.

In addition to supporting scientific research, the group plans to develop resources needed in the event of a bioterrorism attack. For example, they hope to improve the area’s disaster preparedness by establishing links between communities, academic medical centers and state and local health authorities. Developing and expanding collaborations between other institutions and industries in the region also will enhance research efforts.

“This award will allow us to continue exciting research in the development of safe and effective vaccines to assist in the national biodefense effort,” says Robert Belshe, M.D., associate director of the MRCE and director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “It is a recognition of the significant accomplishments of these four institutions in basic and clinical research — research that could play a major part in protecting Americans against the bioterrorism threat.”

James Kazura, M.D., professor of international health and director of the Center for Global Health and Disease at Case Western Reserve University, and Virginia L. Miller, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine, also are associate directors.

With grants totaling approximately $350 million, the NIAID, one of the National Institutes of Health, is funding seven other regional centers as part of its strategic plan for biodefense research.

The full-time and volunteer faculty of Washington University School of Medicine are the physicians and surgeons of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked second in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.