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Medical school wins grant

The University of Maryland School of Medicine won the largest grant in its history yesterday, $42 million in federal money over five years to lead a coalition of more than 60 scientists at 16 institutions to find better defenses against bioterrorism and emerging diseases.

"It's an amazing array of people," said Dr. Myron M. Levine, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Vaccine Development, who will head the venture. "We're very excited."

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The Baltimore medical school was one of eight institutions chosen by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to create regional "centers of excellence" as part of the federal government's expansion of biodefense in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and anthrax mailings in 2001.

The mid-Atlantic center, with a small administrative staff and headquarters at the University of Maryland, will seek improved vaccines against smallpox and anthrax, look for ways to fight deadly hemorrhagic fever viruses such as Ebola and assess the bioterror danger from deadly forms of common bacteria such as E. coli. It will also study natural threats such as West Nile virus.

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Beyond research, the center will provide public health departments with expert advisers and spokesmen in the event of a bioterror attack and link medical scientists with industrial partners.

Health secretaries in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the District of Columbia have pledged to cooperate with the venture, Levine said.

Levine, 59, said that in 33 years of working on National Institutes of Health grants, "I've never seen anything so innovative and broad in scope" as the biodefense initiative.

Already, he said, it has encouraged longtime competitors, such as his vaccine center and the Center for Immunization Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to find ways to work closely together. Dr. Donald S. Burke, who heads the Hopkins facility, will be co-principal investigator of the new biodefense venture.

"Rather than be competitive or redundant, we can be truly synergistic," Levine said.

Two pharmaceutical giants, Merck & Co. and Aventis Pasteur Inc., will serve as hosts for scientists at training sessions on turning medical research into useful products. The communications school at George Washington University will train researchers to reduce complex science to understandable explanations for the media.

The University of Pittsburgh will specialize in using primates for vaccine testing. The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech will provide researchers with the huge computing capacity necessary to make sense of complex genetic sequencing information.

Some scientists worry that fear of bioterrorism is diverting resources from research on diseases that pose a greater health threat.

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But Levine said research on bioterror should also speed progress against natural disease threats. And he said the country has no choice but to prepare for the worst.

"Those anthrax spores [mailed in 2001] created a huge civil disruption and paralyzed many of our public institutions," he said. "We have to respond to the threat."


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