Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

September 25, 2003

Top bioterrorism experts join Pitt, UPMC to establish center

The nation’s top bioterrorism policy experts are joining doctors and scientists from Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) to create the Center for Biosecurity.

The center will result from the move to UPMC, on Nov. 1, of what was the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. The latter center will close after October.

The move will establish UPMC and Pitt collectively as the world’s leader in bioterrorism research, according to officials who announced the center at a Sept. 17 news conference.

Research at the Center for Biosecurity will focus on preventing attacks that employ infectious agents such as anthrax, creating vaccines and drugs, and developing model programs that emergency responders and hospital workers in other regions could adopt for providing mass vaccinations and caring for large numbers of critically ill people.

UPMC is well positioned to be a biodefense leader because its 20 hospitals and 37,000 employees are organized in a way that fosters rapid communication, resource sharing and coordination of health services, said D.A. Henderson, senior adviser to the Center for Biosecurity and its most celebrated member.

Henderson led the eradication of smallpox and was until recently President Bush’s chief bioterrorism adviser. Henderson said he learned of the biodefense work being done in Pittsburgh when he accompanied the president on his visit to Pitt and UPMC in February 2002.

The new center’s chief executive officer, Tara O’Toole, told reporters: “You may not realize it, being from Pittsburgh, but UPMC has created a uniquely integrated health care system. You have an integrated communications system. You have the ability to move people and supplies around at a moment’s notice. This is very unusual in American health care, which more typically is built like an archipelago of coral reefs — autonomous, unconnected hospitals and centers.

“The unique integration of UPMC, combined with the biomedical and scientific expertise of the University of Pittsburgh, provides an enormously advantageous platform from which one can design and test the kinds of operational response systems we think this country needs,” O’Toole said.
She added, “Our entire center of 20 people is coming with us [from Johns Hopkins] and we are all thrilled and excited by this move.”

The Center for Biosecurity will remain headquartered in Baltimore, but its hospitals and laboratories will be in the UPMC system. The center also will have an office in Washington, D.C., “to help shape [the federal government’s biodefense] policies and, quite frankly, to be first in line to bring funds back to Pittsburgh,” said UPMC President Jeffrey Romoff.

Federal funding for biodefense has shot up in the last five years from $8 million to $4.5 billion.

UPMC will endow the Center for Biosecurity with $12 million until it can support itself with grants, said Romoff. The center’s researchers will bring about $5 million in grants with them to Pittsburgh, he said.
The new center’s primary location in Oakland, at least initially, will be UPMC’s Biomedical Science Tower, but center activities will encompass the whole medical center system. The bioterrorism threat is far too big to be handled “through offices on Forbes Avenue or on [Washington, D.C.’s] K Street,” Romoff pointed out.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said the new center should create research opportunities across a broad range of University programs, not just in the medical school and the Graduate School of Public Health.

“For example, I could see GSPIA [the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs] and the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies participating in projects with the biosecurity center,” Nordenberg said. “Certainly, some arts and sciences departments also would get involved, both on the scientific side — there are strong links already between the biological sciences and chemistry departments and the School of Medicine — and on the policy side.”

But federal biodefense dollars would be targeted for specific research projects and would not make up for Pitt’s declining state appropriation, nor would they be a replacement for private fund raising, the chancellor said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 3

Leave a Reply