Antigen Express (http://www.antigenexpress.com)
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (http://www3.niaid.nih.gov)
University of California, Irvine (http://www.uci.edu)
Infectious and immune mediated diseases create problems around the world. In “Protecting the Nation’s Health in an Era of Globalization: CDC’s Global Infectious Disease Strategy,” the authors write: “It is not possible to adequately protect the health of our nation without addressing infectious disease problems that occur elsewhere in the world.” In addition, immune mediated diseases—such as allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders—impact many people. These international concerns create a world of opportunities in research on immunology and infectious diseases.
Daniel Rotrosen, director of the division of allergy, immunology, and transplantation at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says the infectious diseases that cause the most concern today include: emerging and reemerging infectious disease, such as avian influenza, SARS, HIV/AIDS, and West Nile virus; diseases that cripple the developing world, such as tuberculosis and malaria; multiple drug resistant pathogens; and bioterrorism agents such as anthrax. He adds that immune mediated diseases are important in many ways: the number of affected individuals, the chronicity of these diseases, the disabilities that they cause, and their costs to society. He says, “There are close to 100 autoimmune diseases affecting just about every organ system, and a large number of rare, but interesting primary immunodeficiencies.”
In addition, scientists at GlaxoSmithKline point out drug resistant bacteria. David Pompliano, vice president, biology, at GlaxoSmithKline’s Microbial, Musculoskeletal, and Proliferative Diseases Center of Excellence for Drug Discovery, says, “Infectious diseases from resistant bacteria top the Pharmaceutical Gaps list compiled by the World Health Organization. Examples include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, penicillin-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae, vancomycin-resistant enterococci, and fluoroquinolone-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa.” So Pompliano points out the pressing need for new antibiotics.
The fields of immunology and infectious diseases will also face surprises on a regular basis. “HIV came out of nowhere in the early 1980s and appears to be here to stay,” says Eric von Hofe, president of Antigen Express. “Other infectious diseases can and will appear just as unexpectedly.” Such surprises fuel a high demand for scientists with skills related to fighting disease.
Overall, von Hofe thinks that understanding the entire immune system and its interrelationships is vitalizing the development of a wide range of treatment options. “We are discovering how the various components of the immune system fit together and work,” he says. “This knowledge is now at a level where it can be exploited for both novel vaccine development and immunotherapy strategies.”
Equally interesting work pushes ahead the understanding of infectious diseases. According to Alan Barbour, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and medicine in the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, the evolutionary biology of microbes and mathematical modeling of infections and epidemics make up the most exciting recent advances in infectious disease research.
Pompliano also sees great value in research on new antibiotics. “Not every large pharmaceutical company is sticking with antibiotics research, but GlaxoSmithKline has decided to sustain its commitment,” Pompliano says. “Some of the antibiotics of the future may bring only modest financial returns, but we believe we have a responsibility to our patients to create novel antibiotics in time to protect future generations. We are beginning to see the results of our commitment.” In February, for example, GlaxoSmithKline filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for Altabax, a topical formulation of a new class of antibiotics called pleuromutilins.
Targeting the Market
Translational or applied research will capture increasing funds in the near future, according to Barbour. For example, he says, “Government agencies and nonprofit foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will remain the foremost funders of research on infectious disease, but research will tend to be more targeted.” He adds, “The government will also be one of the major consumers of infectious disease products, such as vaccines and new antivirals.”
Barbour adds, “There is an increased need for microbiologists in public health—environmental, clinical, veterinary. Few people are being trained for this career.” He also expects an increased need for microbiologists with backgrounds in bacterial physiology for industrial microbiology and environmental remediation.
In addition, Rotrosen says, “There are many career opportunities related to immune mediated diseases and for those interested in making transplantation a safer and more widely applied therapy for end stage organ disease.” Rotrosen also sees opportunities for “physicians with a strong grasp of basic and translational immunology and the ability to integrate clinical expertise across traditional medical disciplines, such as rheumatology, neurology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, transplantation, allergy, and infectious disease.” He also mentions positions outside the laboratory in a variety of fields: research program directors or regulatory positions in federal agencies, industry, or private research foundations; forensics; patent law; science education and writing; and science policy analysis.
To work in this field, a scientist needs a basic set of skills, such as a knowledge of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. “There will also be a greater need for experience or training in statistics and bioinformatics,” says Barbour. “There will be a need as well for better backgrounds in mathematics and advanced methods for data analysis. Some understanding of computer programming will also be desirable.”
When evaluating potential new hires for antibiotics research, Pompliano says, GlaxoSmithKline must account for the fact that “microbiology is not as popular a major as it used to be.” Therefore, he says, “We look for accomplishment in related areas of biology, such as molecular biology, for our more junior positions. For senior positions, experience in this therapeutic area is a must. We look for demonstrated accomplishment—for example, publications or previous, significant roles in investigational new drug filings with regulatory agencies.”
The variety of ongoing work in immunology and infectious diseases, however, also demands another skill—focus. “It is very exciting as to see the advances made in understanding how different components of the immune system work in complement with each other,” says von Hofe, “but trying to apply these advances can lead to surprises and draw people into multiple areas, all requiring significant effort to sort out. At the end of the day, you’ve spent too little time in any one area to really accomplish something.” Instead, von Hofe says, “Pick an area and stay focused on it.”
A Busy Future
With surprises such as SARS and avian influenza in recent years, scientists expect the need for extensive research in the near future. Barbour thinks that the “application of molecular and biochemical approaches to infectious disease diagnosis and clinical microbiology” will stimulate significant research ahead. He also points out that research will arise from the “effects of climate and landscape change on infectious diseases.”
In many ways, the future of immunology and infectious diseases revolves around surprising proximity. “People in the world are closer together than they realize,” says von Hofe. “SARS showed how infectious agents come out of nowhere and provide a wakeup call.” More than 6 million children suffering from asthma in the U.S. also shows the need to fight immune mediated diseases. “This is an exciting time to go into immunology,” says von Hofe. “There will be lots to do.”
Mike May (email@example.com) is a publishing consultant for science and technology based in the state of Minnesota, U.S.A.