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Infectious Disease Institute Planned for MSU-Bozeman

By Laura Carsten

Infectious diseases are a hot research topic at Montana State University.

They attract the bulk of MSU grants from the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH), and are one of the university's research strengths. Faculty from multiple departments are studying diseases such as brucellosis, candidiasis, and chronic wasting-type diseases from several angles.

And yet, this group of scientists is fragmented, both physically and administratively, according to two scientists who have an idea that would change that. They plan to establish a new Institute for Infectious Disease right on the Bozeman campus.

The scientists--Seth Pincus, who heads the microbiology department, and Mark Jutila, former head and now a faculty member in the veterinary molecular biology department--developed the idea out of a sense of separation. Jutila, who is based in a laboratory a half-mile away from the main campus, wants more day-to-day communication with scientists working on projects similar to his own.

"If I had a better appreciation for what they were doing, I might be able to apply that to my own work and really move things along a lot faster," Jutila says.

There are other compelling reasons to initiate this project, Jutila and Pincus say. Owing to its location, Bozeman is an ideal spot for an institute with a three-pronged focus on human, wildlife and livestock diseases. Infectious diseases--such as tuberculosis--that can infect humans, livestock and wildlife are especially problematic here, and scientists have a sense of urgency in developing new measures to control their spread.

Brucellosis, an endemic disease of bison and elk, is a prime example. Although there has never been a documented case of transmission from these species to cattle in the wild, the possibility alone is a frightening prospect. The loss of Montana's brucellosis-free beef industry would translate into large economic losses for the state. This concern has led to controversial management techniques for Yellowstone bison.

One of the outcomes of these efforts might be the solution of the brucellosis problem "in a logical, rather than a politically inflamed, way," says Pincus. He thinks that many such solutions will result from increased idea-sharing in the close-knit environs of the proposed institute.

For example, MSU veterinary molecular biologist David Pascual is leading a brucellosis vaccine development program for bison that could benefit from increased interactions with other infectious disease researchers at MSU, Jutila said.

MSU has additional strengths that make it a logical choice for housing this unique institute. Infectious disease scientists are carrying out cutting-edge research in everything from inflammatory disease and HIV to whirling disease. College of Agriculture dean Sharron Quisenberry believes that collaborations among this group will help provide economic stability to the region by addressing many diseases that affect Montana directly.

"The institute is tremendously important. It will potentially allow us to prevent infectious disease problems in the long run," she says.

The small size of the university may also be an advantage. Although Pincus admits that MSU would have a hard time competing with large institutes that focus only on human disease, it is an ideal setting for a center with the three-pronged approach.

"Harvard doesn't have an agricultural college, or a Center for Biofilm Engineering, or an ecology department," he says. "Our very smallness allows for much broader cross-disciplinary interactions."

Closer physical proximity will allow the faculty to interact even more effectively. "Everyone benefits if we make real medical breakthroughs. And I think we can in areas where we are strong and focused," Pincus says.

While the Infectious Disease Institute is still in the idea stage, Pincus and Jutila have taken steps to make it a reality. A large grant from NIH, if approved, would provide funds for five collaborative projects. One such project would involve a crossover between microbiology and neural science. Jim Cutler of the microbiology department studies Candida albicans, the a fungus that can cause opportunistic infections, or infections in people who have compromised immune systems. This microbe sometimes crosses the blood-brain barrier, causing neurological disease. A close working relationship with an MSU neurologist would help both scientists renew their attack on the disease from a fresh angle.

"The institute will foster these kinds of collaborations," says Pincus.

Both Jutila and Pincus are excited about what this institute will mean for MSU and Montana. Increased funding, greater idea generation, and attractiveness to future faculty are just a few of the benefits the university will garner.

"There is a lot to be derived for the community, both here in Montana and across the country," says Pincus.

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