Nov 24, 2007
Waging war against infectious diseases
Top scientist says S'pore can't be free of these diseases unless region does its part
By Shobana Kesava
INFECTIOUS disease expert Duane Gubler, 68, puts himself in the front line in the war he wages.
He has been infected at least thrice with dengue, thrice with malaria and even deliberately infected himself with the filiarisis worm which causes elephantiasis - to better understand the disease.
He caught the two mosquito-borne diseases while trying to lure mosquitoes into biting monkeys, and while out in the field.
The former director of the vector-borne infectious diseases division at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is now here to take research in these areas to the next level.
'The world is about 30 years behind in infectious diseases research because we thought we conquered them in the 1960s...Resources were moved into the war on other diseases like cancer.'
Ironically, scientists have discovered that certain cancers such as stomach cancer are, in fact, caused by the infectious diseases that have been neglected for decades.
Professor Gubler runs the Asia-Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases in Hawaii.
He is, from this month, concurrently heading the signature research programme in emerging infectious diseases at the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School (Duke-NUS).
His plans for Singapore are ambitious - to set up the 'world's best laboratory for research and reference on Asian infectious diseases'.
Tens of millions will go into the laboratory, and with government support, money is not an issue, he said.
Good research will rope in funding from groups like the National Institutes of Health in the US and the Gates Foundation, he said.
The Government has declared its commitment to a concerted effort to fight infectious diseases. It will work with regional countries.
Duke-NUS will have about 70 investigators looking at areas such as metabolic disease, and will train students from the region too.
Field laboratories will also be set up in Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam, where there are emerging infectious diseases.
A key goal will be to develop an early warning disease detection system across Asia.
Singapore cannot be free of infectious disease, Prof Gubler noted, unless the region does its part.
While it is not known what the next epidemic will be, he is almost certain it will be a 'zoonotic' - a disease transmitted from animal to man - as was the case with severe acute respiratory syndrome, which was traced to civet cats.
Prof Gubler plans to spend most of his time in Singapore from next September, until the lab runs smoothly.
He said: 'Not only Asia needs it but the world needs it.'