First Response


By Kathy Svitil, Illustrations by Josh Cochran

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM

When you face an enemy that is both elusive and ubiquitous, information is the best defense. You need early warning. And you need to know not only when trouble's coming, but what it is and where it came from. Such is the case on the front lines of the battle against emerging diseases and bio-terror attacks, where cutting-edge technology and wide-ranging surveillance programs are helping us actively defend against the threats.

There are outlaw regimes or terror networks hunting for or already building biological weapons programs. What if we could identify the deadly products they made by their biological "fingerprints," so that we could analyze — fast — where anthrax mailed to a senator came from and how deadly it was? Attacks might even be prevented if our enemies knew, for example, that we know which anthrax is their anthrax.

If bird flu or some other deadly new viral pandemic reached our shores, what if we had the ability to test samples to precisely identify, track and develop defenses against that particular bug? Or what if we had a way to actually forecast what new viruses will emerge so we could prevent an outbreak from even occurring?

In both cases, thousands of lives could be saved. And Bruins could very well be the heroes that save those lives.

UCLA already is a major player in the effort to develop readiness plans in the event of a biological crisis ["Flu Fighters," UCLA Magazine, October 2006]. Now it also is fast becoming one of the most critical information and tracking centers in the nation's defense against these deadly threats.

The School of Public Health's (SPH) High Speed, High Volume Laboratory Network for Infectious Diseases is the first of its kind — a rapid response science resource that can track thousands of bio-terror threats or infectious disease outbreaks almost in real time, identify their origins and shorten the time needed to produce vaccines.

And the National Institutes of Health has tasked the SPH to create the Center for Rapid Influenza Surveillance and Research (CRISAR), which will direct a team of physicians, veterinarians, researchers and biologists assembled from across the United States to investigate and identify flu viruses with the potential to explode into pandemics.

In this critical battle, Westwood's clinicians, biologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and other disease fighters represent a new kind of scientist-scholar for the 21st century. These are not just researchers. They are real-life science action heroes.

"There's no question but that the globalization of society has created new, more imminent public health challenges," says Linda Rosenstock, the dean of UCLA's School of Public Health. "The school is undertaking truly visionary work not just with respect to responding to these threats, but seeking ways to prevent them."