UW News

April 4, 2002

New Keck Center established to focus on microbes that cause disease

The UW School of Medicine has established the Keck Center for Functional, Structural, and Chemical Genomics of Microbial Pathogens. The Keck Center will use state-of-the-art technology to mount an assault on some of the most dangerous and deadly infections on earth.

“These diseases are among the most heart-rending in the world – whether it’s a child with cystic fibrosis in the United States dying from protracted infection with Pseudomonas, or a child in Africa dying of malaria,” says Dr. Chris Wilson, professor and chair of immunology, one of the co-directors of the center. “Infectious agents remain the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in developing nations. They are a major cause of morbidity and mortality for certain risk groups in developed nations like the United States. And infectious agents are readily spread between nations.”

The center was established through a $2 million gift from the W. M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations.

The gift will help unite 20 UW faculty into a coordinated research effort to exploit the full medical potential of existing and forthcoming microbial genome sequences. In addition, the Keck Center will contribute resources to attract new faculty in the areas of mass spectrometry, crystallography, and proteomics (studies of proteins).

Pathogenic microbes threaten human health worldwide, because these hardy organisms easily spread between countries and have the potential to evolve faster than treatments can be devised to combat them. In the United States, the rate of deaths caused by infectious disease has grown from 36 per 100,000 in 1981 to at least 63 per 100,000 in 1999.

“Human history teaches us that microbes have major advantages in an arms race with humans – numbers, generation time, and genetic adaptability. The battle can be won, but only by systematically applying the newest technology and consistently adopting interdisciplinary approaches,” Wilson says.

  • The center will integrate several areas of technological innovation:
  • Functional genomics and proteomics;
  • Structural genomics (high-throughput protein structure determination);
  • Chemical biology; and
  • Biology of infection

The UW already has considerable strength in the functional, structural, and chemical genomics of microbial pathogens, Wilson says. The center’s goals include attracting new investigators with complementary interests, acquiring state-of-the-art resources needed to conduct this research, and encouraging strong collaborations and interactions within the group that will foster development of new technologies.

Researchers will seek drug and vaccine targets for:

Pseudomonas aeruginosa: Individuals suffering from cystic fibrosis can die of chronic lung infection and inflammation caused by this bacterium. The organism is capable of rapid genetic change, mutating to new variants that thrive within the infected lungs of these children, and resist antibiotic treatment. Pseudomonas aeruginosa also affects burn victims, cancer patients, and other people whose defenses against infection are compromised.

Pathogenic protozoa: Trypanosomes (which cause African sleeping sickness and Chagas disease in the Americas), Plasmodium (which causes malaria), and Leishmania take a staggering toll in developing nations.

The center is co-directed by Wilson and Dr. Alan Weiner, professor and chair of biochemistry. Members of the governing board include Professors Sam Miller of medicine, Wim Hol of biochemistry, Maynard Olson, director of the UW Genome Center, and Stanley Fields, chair of genome sciences.

The Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W.M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The foundation’s grantmaking focuses primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering.