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New science department to focus on illnesses such as malaria, polio

Ohio State’s School of Biomedical Science will add an eighth department expected to raise the OSU Medical Center’s national rankings and increase the university’s ability to recruit top research scientists in the field of infectious diseases.

The Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity will deal with microbes, or unicellular organisms, and their relationship with their host and the environment, said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, director of the OSU Center for Microbial Interface Biology.

“It is a new, basic science department,” said Catherine Lucey, interim dean of the College of Medicine. “It is a department designed to advance discovery for microbial illnesses, and has been in the works for several years.”

Microbial illnesses focus on diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria, polio and hospital-acquired illnesses, Lucey said.

Schlesinger said the disease MRSA, an infection resistant to some commonly used antibiotics, is another illness microbes cause that affects U.S. citizens.

Lucey said microbial diseases are a major issue in the world of medicine and the establishment of this department is a step in the right direction.

“We felt that given the importance of these illnesses, we really needed to put resources and brains into a dedicated effort,” Lucey said.

Schlesinger has been working to create this new department because of his experience in the area, Lucey said.

“He has a long track record of basic science research in this area,” she said. “And he has really established the university and helped give it a reputation to be a great program builder.”

The CMIB is a center at OSU that “promotes and coordinates research and training in infectious diseases and microbial pathogenesis,” according to a proposal from March for the microbial infection and immunity department.

Schlesinger said he has been the “chief architect” of the department.

Both Lucey and Schlesinger said the addition of the new department in the College of Medicine will make a huge impact on the research of microbial organisms and the medical center in general.

“I think it will bring together scientists whose passion is in the field and it will help develop new research themes that will help us contribute understanding to the field,” Lucey said.

Robert Bornstein, the vice dean of academic affairs in the College of Medicine, said the creation of a new department in medicine does not happen very often, but there is sometimes a need for creation. In the last few years, certain divisions of surgery, such as plastic surgery, have been molded into their own departments.

“As those divisions grow up, there’s enough differentiation in those disciplines that it makes sense to make them into departments,” Bornstein said.

Although the microbial illnesses department has a specific focus on infectious diseases, Lucey said other colleges on campus can benefit from the new department.

“This department has widespread support from other colleges on campus, from arts and sciences to the veterinary school,” Lucey said. “Infection and immunity are very important for a lot of areas in the medical center.”

The veterinary school will benefit from the department’s research in zoonoses, or infections that are very common in animals, but can also be harmful to humans.

The department will also be useful for non-scientific students and others without a lot of medical knowledge.

“We really need to have a lot of research in the area that helps us understand how infections occur,” Schlesinger said. “Understanding what these microbes bring to the table and the human response to those pathogens, that’s what causes sickness.”

He said some of the illness-causing microbes are now becoming more resistant to the medicine being used to treat the diseases.

“Our therapies are becoming less limited and we need to find new targets for drug discovery,” Schlesinger said.

The proposal said the new department will create 30 primary faculty jobs, with 15-20 of those being current OSU faculty, nine administrative staff, and 100 people on the research staff. Lucey also said graduate students will be hired to help with research in the department.

Bornstein could not give exact costs for creating the new department.

He said there would be costs when creating a new infrastructure for the department, but a lot of the staff being hired already have salaries at OSU.

The Ohio State Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the new department on Feb. 11.

“This department has been in the works for two years,” Lucey said. “Starting a department really takes a lot of work, and although the college is grateful for the Wexners, this actually preceded that.”


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