August 19, 2017
3 min read

Q&A: Initiative to combat infectious disease using novel approaches

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Photo of Peter S. Kim, PhD
Peter Kim

Over the past several years, the global emergence of infectious disease outbreaks has revealed that new approaches to fight and prevent the spread of dangerous pathogens are urgently needed.

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub (CZ Biohub), a center focused on discovering and developing new technologies that will allow clinicians to manage, cure or prevent disease, has created a new project to address the urgent need for new strategies to protect against infectious disease. The Infectious Disease Initiative is a project focused on using and developing the most advanced technologies to support the global fight against infectious disease. Its main goals involve detecting, responding to, treating and preventing infectious disease.

Infectious Disease News spoke with Peter Kim, PhD, professor of biochemistry at Stanford University and lead investigator of the Infectious Disease Initiative, to better understand the Initiative and what the project will mean for the future of infectious disease research. – by Savannah Demko

Can you talk a little about the new technologies you are using for this project?

There are four pillars of the Infectious Disease Initiative at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub: detect, treat, prevent and rapid response. An overarching goal in these areas is to merge technology with science. We want to bring technology and the science of infectious disease closer together.

One of the technologies that we will emphasize is DNA sequencing. Joe DeRisi, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, and Steve Quake, DPhil, Lee Otterson Professor of bioengineering and professor of applied physics at Stanford University, who head up CZ Biohub, are leaders in the application of DNA sequencing to detect infectious agents. We are also interested in working with folks to develop tools to detect infections in remote locations where there might not be infrastructure or even electricity.

We are interested in partnering with the Cell Atlas project at CZ Biohub to understand interactions between infectious agents and human cells, to help validate drug targets that are human proteins. Such targets are expected to be much less likely to develop drug resistance as compared with targets from the infectious agent.

We will also be working on advancing B-cell isolation technology. The goal is isolate B cells from survivors of a new, emerging infectious agent and identify which are producing antibodies that are potently neutralizing — quickly and effectively. Such antibodies might be useful to treat others.


In terms of prevention, our major focus will be vaccines. In the spirit of merging science with technology, the overarching goal is to explore and create novel technologies and strategies. This is a “lift all boats at once” goal. We want to have an impact on many vaccine needs.

As a society, we are not very effective at responding to imminent danger from an infectious agent. We want to look at a few main questions: where are the gaps, why are we not good at this? What can the Biohub do to help make our response more rapid? We think that this is an area where there is no question that technology can help us respond more efficiently. We are and will be engaging with potential partners to move this forward. We are talking to people globally who are involved in thinking about response, to identify where there are opportunities for collaboration.

The investigator program presents tremendous opportunity for collaboration. We are talking about 47 laboratories with which we can potentially interface effectively.

How will centering on the Initiative’s four key areas of focus detection, responding, treating and preventing guide your research?

We will focus on all four areas, and how best to leverage technology to improve those four areas. But we will also take a flexible approach. If there is a rapid response need in real time, then we can pull folks from the other three areas to focus on rapid response.

What progress has the Initiative made since it began?

Until now, our major focus has been on gathering a very strong team. Bringing scientific minds from Berkeley, Stanford and UCSF together, along with access to all the resources that those institutions bring, creates a tremendous opportunity.

What does the Initiative hope to accomplish in the future?

We hope to have an impact, to save lives, to leave a lasting legacy in terms of global rapid response to outbreaks.

What will this mean for infectious disease clinicians?

We will not be performing clinical trials at the Biohub, but we are extremely interested in interfacing with clinicians. For example, one project is aimed at developing technologies and approaches to better detect and control drug-resistant infections. Antibiotic-resistant infections are a big problem. We want to use the latest technologies as well as other technologies based on CRISPR tools and methods.

Disclosure: Kim reports no relevant financial disclosures.