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Sleuthing novel pathogens

Published: July 25 2009

J. Glenn Morris

Director
Emerging Pathogens Institute

Chasing cholera around the globe is not for the faint of heart. Neither is building a new statewide institute focused on novel pathogens.

But when Glenn Morris muses about his role in directing and developing the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, you get the sense he’s up for a tough challenge.

Whether the subject is cholera, malaria, swine flu, citrus greening, Salmonella or anti-microbial drug resistance, Morris navigates disparate discussions on classic and novel diseases with a quiet and confident demeanor that points to the knowledge he’s acquired over three decades of studying infectious diseases.

At the heart of it, though, Morris said his main mission is to understand why and how new diseases emerge. And he hopes that by studying novel pathogens abroad, EPI can help to safeguard people at home in Florida.

Morris’ grasp of a pathogen’s clinical aspects is matched by his understanding of the suffering that diseases can inflict.

“I’ve seen firsthand the impact of cholera pandemics on cities in Asia, as well as the individual heartache caused by the death of a child infected with E. coli O157:H7,” Morris said.

Morris holds the institute together and links eight colleges across UF, and he is the force behind an ambitious agenda investigating pathogens such as tuberculosis, malaria, food safety, enteric diseases and microbial drug resistance in at least 17 foreign countries and U.S. territories. On his watch, since August 2007, EPI has developed collaborations with investigators in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Republic of Georgia, and South and Central America.

When swine flu swept the globe and the nation’s consciousness in late April, many eyes in Florida turned to the newly minted EPI. Morris served as a resource for the state health department, helped to educate Florida physicians, and worked with local and state reporters to discuss the implications of the novel flu and to interpret the actions of the Centers for Disease Control.

“Nobody wants a global public health crisis, or even a local public health crisis,” Morris said. “But if one crops up, like the swine flu, EPI can bring unique expertise to the table.”

He’s careful to point out that the institute is not set up to be a first-line responder.

“We don’t man the ambulances,” he said. But EPI can advise first-line responders and policy-makers based on the best science available.

“EPI is still a work in progress,” Morris said, “but we are working toward a goal of being able to track and control disease outbreaks, and possibly even predict when these events may occur.”

Photo credit: Ray Carson — University Photography