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VOL. 133 | NO. 63 | Wednesday, March 28, 2018

UTHSC Adds Infectious Disease Institute

By Andy Meek

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Dr. Colleen Jonsson, director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, will be taking her work in infectious disease research to a new level as director of a new institute at UTHSC.

The Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems will include collecting infectious disease research among a group of faculty across several disciplines when it opens at the university.

Dr. Colleen Jonsson

According to a concept plan drawn up by Jonsson, who joined UTHSC in late 2017, the thing that will drive the institute is an idea called “convergence research.” The National Science Foundation defines such research as being focused on a “specific and compelling problem” and on deep integration that crosses academic and scientific disciplines.

The institute at UTHSC, specifically, will work to build new relationships across departments and colleges focused on pathogen research that’s key to developing new treatments and diagnostic tools.

Jonsson is hoping the institute will stir up enthusiasm for drug discoveries and the development of new drugs on campus.

“A convergence approach in infectious disease research will not only augment publications, funding and national recognition, but provide essential interactions that will strengthen the foundations of infectious disease research for generations of faculty and students to come,” Jonsson said in a statement about the new institute being launched.

It’s a focus that is already baked into UTHSC’s higher-level strategic vision.

The university has a document called its “Operational Strategic Plan for Research.” Woven throughout it is a recommendation that infectious diseases is one research area that’s worth more investment. Together with the unique capabilities of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, the document reads, the university’s “institutional expertise and resources provides a rich environment for further growth in anti-infective research, including drug discovery and development.”

Jonsson, who is out of the country this week, has already spent a career that’s spanned almost 30 years studying highly pathogenic human viruses and another eight years studying plant infectious agents.

She came to UTHSC from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where she was the director of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Beaman Distinguished Professor of Microbiology. She’s also served as the director of the Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, among other roles, at the University of Louisville.

Her work has focused on trying to answer questions that include how diseases progress and how they differ between similar strains. At UTHSC, she’s also serving as the endowed Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology and as a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry.

The 30,000-square-foot Regional Biocontainment Laboratory that she leads was built in 2009. It is one of 13 Regional Biocontainment Laboratories in the country funded by the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

The main purpose of the research conducted at the biocontainment lab is the development of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics to serve as a protection against infectious diseases and bioterrorism.

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