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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 31, 2003

Infectious diseases specialist joins UH

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

The John A. Burns School of Medicine expects to launch a major push to build an Asia Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease at the University of Hawai'i, bringing on board a national authority on infectious disease from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga.

Duane J. Gubler has just stepped down as director of the CDC's Fort Collins, Colo., infectious disease laboratory that, among other things, has been responsible for identifying and aggressively attacking new pathogens such as the West Nile virus. He's expected to join UH on Jan. 1 to begin building a critical mass of researchers in tropical disease.

"We're hoping to make the UH Medical School the center of the universe for infectious tropical diseases in Asia and the Pacific," Gubler said by phone from Colorado. "That's our goal. And I think we can do that.

"It makes sense from a lot of standpoints, from the cultural relationships, geographic relationships and the long history of training the university has had with people there."

The appointment is being seen as a coup for UH Medical School dean Edwin Cadman, who has been in negotiations with Gubler for more than a year, and for the university, which is moving to position itself as a global research and training resource for emerging global infectious diseases, including everything from dengue fever to West Nile virus.

"We need to take advantage of our geographical location and we should have one of the world's leading tropical disease centers," said Cadman, who has promised Gubler three to five faculty members within the next three years. There are already four or five research faculty in the medical school to form the core of the new institute.

"The emerging infections are either in Asia or Africa and we're working with Vietnam, Thailand, Korea and with the Department of Defense to create a center of excellence for tropical diseases for the Pacific region," said Cadman.

UH President Evan Dobelle applauded Gubler's decision to join UH, calling him one of the world's "most exceptional and renowned infectious disease specialists" who would help build a "world-class center" at the university.

It was Gubler's work, along with that of Leon Rosen of the National Institutes of Health, that perfected a technique for dengue detection in the early 1970s that is still being used.

Gubler's most recent work to develop a pediatric dengue vaccine for use in children in the developing world, is being financed by a $55 million Gates Foundation grant. Though that money will be based in Korea, Gubler expects to continue some of the research in Hawai'i.

Additionally, Cadman said the planned Hawai'i institute could work with Hawaii Biotech which is also working on vaccines for dengue and West Nile virus.

"The plan is to have several sites to do clinical vaccine trials in Asia where the diseases are," Cadman said.

Dengue vaccines will also be important locally. A sudden Hawai'i outbreak of the disease two years ago — the first in 60 years — hit the state's tourist industry hard just as Hawai'i was also being rocked economically by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Gubler's laboratory is expected to be centered in the new $150 million UH Medical School development in Kaka'ako that broke ground last October and will have its first building in operation by next fall. Gubler hopes to be able to build a team of scientists from within and outside the university to create a critical mass for tropical disease research and training.

"There are people in Hawai'i who have big grants and we'll certainly be trying to get more," Gubler said. "My role is going to be one of a builder, to build a world-class research program. The university has a lot of very good people on their faculty now in all kinds of areas so part of my job is going to be to bring them together. It's going to require a lot of support from the university to pull this off."

Gubler has been at the forefront of dengue research for more than 30 years, doing his Master's degree in parasitology at UH from 1963-65 and his first work in the field in India in 1969 at the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine.

When the medical school was first being formed in 1971 Gubler returned to Hawai'i to join the faculty, first as an assistant professor and then a tenured associate professor in a department of tropical medicine. He remained on the faculty through 1978, but spent much of his time traveling throughout the Pacific studying dengue epidemics.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.