Dangerous pathogens have the world at their fingertips. They conceal themselves, unnoticed to the human eye in tiny insects and within our water and soil, and they threaten the health and lives of humans and animals. Thankfully, there are people like Judith Johnson, PhD, a committed scientist who gets excited by her work and by events like the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute acquiring cholera samples that date back to the 1930s.
“The implications of what we can learn in terms of migration, trade routes and genetics is very exciting,” said Johnson, a research professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine in Gainesville.
Johnson is also director of Core Laboratories at the institute, which moved into its new building adjacent to the UF Cancer & Genetics Research Complex in January. The move means more than just new paint and modern amenities. It signifies the growth and collaboration that will position the institute as the adviser to state, national and global health organizations when life-threatening diseases surface.
In addition to her work with cholera, Johnson also examines Staphyloccocus — with a focus on strains such as MRSA that are resistant to methicillin — to understand how these drug-resistant pathogens are transferred in hospitals and in community settings.
“In order for us to understand diseases of this magnitude, we have to be in conversations with physicians, veterinarians, pharmacists and the public health specialists — here and around the globe,”
Glenn Morris, MD, director of the institute and a professor of infectious disease at the College of Medicine
For Johnson and many of her fellow researchers, the term “bench to bedside” extends beyond the clinical setting. Their reach extends to agriculture and the environment. For example, Johnson looks at how bacteria, such as E. coli, travel in water and how they come in contact with soil and vegetation. Discoveries from labs like Johnson’s will help in the development of new, practical irrigation practices in the agriculture sector where fruits and vegetables are consumed raw.
“No other pathogens research facility in the nation has the breadth and scope of expertise that we do,” said J. Glenn Morris, MD, MPHTM, director of the institute and a professor of infectious disease at the College of Medicine.
Since 2007, when Morris was recruited to UF from the University of Maryland, EPI has grown from a handful of faculty members located in a small house next to the
Evelyn F. & William L. McKnight Brain Institute to a group of more than 150 affiliated investigators working around the globe.
“EPI is like a matrix organization, and this new building serves as a hub for faculty from eight UF colleges, with investigators working on projects that span disciplines and 32 countries,” Morris said.
Investigators associated with the institute are human, animal and plant pathologists and entomologists, infectious disease and pulmonary specialists, and microbiologists. Working together are mathematic modelers, geneticists, specialists in geographic information system and remote sensing, and bioengineers. They collaborate to preempt and fight the next new or reemerging epidemic or pandemic.
“In order for us to understand diseases of this magnitude, we have to be in conversations with physicians, veterinarians, pharmacists and the public health specialists — here and around the globe,” Morris said. “Emerging pathogens know no borders, and neither do we.”
Having access to diverse research from a variety of disciplines is what gives EPI its edge as the go-to resource for first responders, providing back-up for efforts to control H1N1 swine flu in Florida and assisting in setting up laboratories to look for disease-causing pathogens in earthquake-torn Haiti.
EPI also has developed collaborations with investigators in India, Africa, Asia, Europe, and South and Central America. Some ongoing initiatives include work with vector-borne diseases such as malaria, West Nile and equine encephalitis, and food safety and diarrheal infections, including cholera and E. coli. This research, with the help of funding from the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will help EPI investigators develop models for disease, risk and risk management that can be applied to health at home.
“To be able to predict when a disease will threaten Florida, one has to have a national and global perspective,” said Morris.
“We have the capacity to react,” said Morris, who said he is excited about how the institute is drawing the attention of future EPI investigators.
“There have been limited opportunities in global health research at UF in the past. Interest is there among medical students and postdocs, and now we can reach out to them,” he said. “EPI provides students with a global perspective and can broaden one’s perspective.”
Johnson says that while the new building serves as a nucleus where investigators can meet and exchange ideas, she also believes it’s important because it gives EPI exposure to medical residents and students.
The secluded, windowless research labs of years past where some of the brightest minds worked in solitude are quickly giving way to buildings like the new EPI on the UF campus.
The glass-sided building with open labs and comfortable lounge areas was designed to provide a dynamic environment for researchers, mathematicians, geographers and physicians in which to exchange ideas that will help us understand global threats before they reach Florida.