Can We Prevent the Next Pandemic?

Before the respiratory virus SARS-CoV-2 ever emerged, Tom Friedrich was already studying how viruses evolve to cause pandemics. His PhD training focused on how HIV adapts to escape detection by the immune system. Since opening his lab at the University of Wisconsin—Madison in 2008, he’s studied how viruses like influenza and Zika overcome evolutionary barriers to spread and cause disease. For nearly two years, he’s been analyzing viral sequencing data generated from positive COVID-19 test samples around the state of Wisconsin.

Thomas Friedrich, professor of pathobiological sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison, provided by Thomas Friedrich.

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, Tom continues to make important contributions to both SARS-CoV-2 research and the relevant public health response. However, his experiences have led him to ask an even bigger question: How can we prepare for the next pandemic while still battling the current one?

“What has characterized our responses to these types of disease outbreaks in the past is sort of a boom and bust cycle,” Tom says. “We spin up a massive response that often tends to get going just as the thing itself is petering out. Then interest and funding wane so that we’re not really left with any sustainable infrastructure. But with Ebola, Zika and now COVID-19 in a pretty rapid cadence, I think people are finally getting the idea that we need to have a more sustainable infrastructure that is not totally specific to the particular disease that’s causing this outbreak today.”

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Discussing the Future of Gene Editing at CRISPRcon Midwest

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Walking in to the first session at CRISPRcon Midwest.

Last week, a diverse group of stakeholders attended CRISPRcon Midwest, hosted by the Keystone Policy Center and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The goal of the day-long conference was to emphasize the importance and value of gene editing technology, and how it must be communicated deliberately between scientists, the public, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

Julie Shapiro, Senior Policy Director of Keystone Policy Center, acted as Emcee for the event. Given the diverse group of attendees, she mentioned in her opening remarks that the event organizers were “seeking conversation, not consensus” and emphasized the “power of respectful dialogue.” A slide overhead showcased the ground rules for the day, which included statements such as “dare to listen, dare to share, and dare to disagree.”

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Word cloud generated from live polling results at CRISPRcon Midwest.

CRISPRcon aimed to included voices beyond those represented by keynote speakers and panelists, so they incorporated live polling through an online app to keep the audience engaged and an active participant in the conversations throughout the day. From the opening remarks, it was clear that this conference would not just deliver on its promise of thoughtful conversation about the science, but build further understanding about the societal impacts of a rapidly advancing technology.

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Biotechnology in Space: Partnering with the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium

The BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) has been a member of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium (WSGC) since 2002. As an educational arm of NASA, the mission of WSGC “is to use the excitement and vision of space and aerospace science to equip the citizens of Wisconsin with the math, science and technology tools they need to thrive in the 21st century.”

Also as noted on WSGC’s website, “The mission of NASA’s Space Grant Program is to contribute to the nation’s science enterprise by funding education, research, and informal education projects through a national network of university-based Space Grant consortia.” Members of these consortia include academic institutions, government agencies, businesses and other educational organizations, such as the BTC Institute.
Of particular relevance to the WSGC/BTC Institute partnership, Space Grant Program goals include working to:

  • Recruit and train professionals, especially women, and underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities, for careers in aerospace related fields.
  • Develop a strong science, mathematics, and technology education base from elementary through university levels.

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