Infectious disease is responsible for millions of deaths each year, accounting for almost half of all deaths in the developing world. Even when it does not kill, it can predispose individuals to other illnesses throughout the rest of their lives, and an enormous price is exacted in terms of lost productivity and social instability. The impact of infectious disease is also not limited to the developing world. In wealthy nations where high-quality medical treatment is often able to prevent mortality, microbial pathogenesis gives rise to serious complications in conjunction with other conditions and can cause crippling, though non-lethal, ailments such as blindness, paralysis, and neurological defects. When its effects on both human health and agriculture are considered, infectious disease is estimated to have a global economic cost of tens of billions of dollars each year.
The challenges presented by infectious disease have been exacerbated by the emergence not only of new pathogens but also of strains of existing ones that display increased resistance to antimicrobial drugs. Multidrug resistance has been extensively documented for the causative agents of tuberculosis, malaria, and many other illnesses. This poses an extremely grave threat to public health, and strategies for prevention and treatment urgently require the development of new antimicrobial drugs and vaccines. To accomplish this, it is critical to obtain an understanding of the biology of pathogenic microbes, their host organisms, and how the two interact during infection.
A Unique Environment for Learning and Discovery
The Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard Medical School possesses a faculty and training program that are ranked at the top of the field. Faculty interests include basic research on the genetics and molecular biology of prokaryotic and eukaryotic microorganisms, microbial pathogenesis, and vaccine development. The Department is located centrally on the HMS campus at the Longwood Medical Area, providing an excellent environment for collaboration with investigators in other fields. State-of-the-art facilities and a vibrant research community exist at both Longwood and the main Harvard campus in nearby Cambridge, and collegiality among different laboratories is further promoted by the close proximity of MIT, Tufts, and Boston University. In addition, world-class training in infectious disease is offered at the many hospitals affiliated with HMS, ensuring that researchers always have access to clinical expertise and the opportunity to work with physicians.
History of the Department
The Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology of the Harvard Medical School has a long and distinguished history of making significant contributions to an understanding of the fundamental causes, means of prevention, and treatment of disease by studying the molecular bases of pathogenic viral and bacterial infections; and by expanding the basic understanding of bacterial viruses, fungi and animal cells. The Department follows in the rich tradition of such eminent alumni and members of the faculty as Hans Zinsser, John Enders, Bernard Davis, and Bernard Fields. Zinsser's groundbreaking work on rickettsial diseases led to an understanding of recurrent typhus, named Brill-Zinsser disease in his honor.
Enders, a student of Zinsser, received his doctorate in Microbiology from Harvard Medical School in 1930 and served on the faculty for 37 years. His research first led to the refinement of tissue culture techniques for the study of viruses in vitro, and then, to the cultivation of polio, measles, and mumps viruses in non-nervous tissues. Enders' seminal work paved the way for the development of the polio, measles and mumps vaccines and earned him the Nobel Prize. Bernard Davis expanded our understanding of the role of antibiotics and their ability to kill bacteria. His work and the work of Luigi Gorini on streptomycin helped elucidate how this drug worked as a treatment of tuberculosis. Bernard Fields' work expanded our knowledge of the structure and genetics of animal viruses in relation to their dissemination and replication in the human host.
More recent work in the Department has led to the development of new approaches for making vaccines, new vaccine candidates for cholera, antiviral strategies for herpes simplex virus and general immune therapies for viral infections. In addition, studies of SIV pathogenesis in monkeys serve as the best animal model for AIDS and have led to observations suggesting that a vaccine may become feasible and that certain therapeutic approaches are promising.
The Department honors the legacies of Zinsser, Enders, Davis, and Fields by continuing to advance the field of microbiology, thereby providing new tools to understand and eradicate disease. The scourge of emerging diseases, of which AIDS is perhaps the most poignant and most virulent example, illustrates the continued relevance of studying the molecular biology and genetics of microbial agents as well as the critical need to further explain how new agents evolve and cause disease.