Diseases on Display at Koshland

Posted March 28, 2007 at 4:57pm

Three tuberculosis patients from different parts of the world face the same devastating disease. But where they live and what resources are available to them could very well dictate their ability to fight the disease — a typical man in America can be cured in six months, while it takes more than a year for a woman in Africa to get well. And for a man in a Russian prison, drug-resistant tuberculosis can be a death sentence.

The emergence of drug-resistant tuberculosis and its treatment around the world is just one of the many topics showcased in the Marian Koshland Science Museum’s new exhibit, “Infectious Disease: Evolving Challenges to Human Health.”

The exhibit, which officially opens March 31, features interactive displays highlighting viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, the infectious diseases they cause, and the challenges scientists face in dealing with them.

Erika Shugart, the museum’s deputy director and curator, said that while Americans feel sheltered from infectious diseases, the increasingly global community makes it necessary for everyone to become more aware.

“We’re less than a day trip from most places in the world that have huge burdens from infectious diseases,” Shugart said.

In a world where trade and travel continue to flourish, along with the rapid population growth and the changes of land use in different parts of the world, experts say the opportunity for exchanging infectious disease is only likely to increase.

“I think people need to be aware, especially when you’re traveling to these other countries … that you have a good sense of where to go and that you’re constantly aware that anywhere in the world, you can get infected by diseases,” said Gail Cassell, vice president of Eli Lilly and Co. and a member of the exhibit’s steering committee.

Targeted at an audience 13 years old and above, the exhibit features videos about the impacts of HIV, how it attacks the immune system and how antiretroviral drugs fight the virus. Another film provides a glimpse into the rapid reproduction and mutation rates of microorganisms. Meanwhile, one interactive display shows the diversity of microbial life.

Maps updated on a regular basis point to places in the world where new and old diseases have emerged. Visitors can read about the recent salmonella outbreak in the United States and study data sets on how population density, sanitation and other human factors are related to regions where a malaria or cholera outbreak has occurred.

“The power of scientific tools and scientific insight are growing at such a rate that we now wonder … maybe we do have some means to deliberately create situations that would never have happened in nature,” said David Relman, associate professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Relman said the exhibit highlights more positive stories about successful eradication of diseases such as small pox. He said humans, now more than ever, have the ability to intervene in the outcomes of “the constantly evolving interactions with microbes and their environment.”

Made possible through a research grant from the National Institutes of Health, the exhibit was developed by a team of scientific experts. Elliott Kieff, chairman of the scientific steering committee charged with creating the exhibit, said the museum wanted to explain and highlight contemporary issues related to infectious diseases.

“We take a group of academics and you put them together with filming people, interactive exhibit people and what comes out is a dialogue of creative endeavors,” Kieff said.

Committee members say the exhibit’s ultimate goal is to inform the general public about infectious diseases and to help people make personal health choices. They hope to attract policymakers, Capitol Hill staffers and and top leaders at federal agencies.

“For a generally wealthy nation like ours … it behooves us to think about how we can head off some of these emerging [diseases in other parts of the world]. … They will absolutely come back to haunt us regardless of where they arise,” Relman said.

“Infectious Disease: Evolving Challenges to Human Health” opens March 31 and will be on display for two years at the Marian Koshland Science Museum, at Sixth and E streets Northwest. New York Times science reporter Denise Grady will be at the opening event from 1 to 2:30 p.m. for a discussion.