As planning for this issue of Terra got underway, the Ebola outbreak was capturing attention in medical journals and news reports and across the Internet. There were fears of a pandemic. Previously known only in Africa, the disease had appeared in the United States and Spain. Public health specialists struggled to cut the rate of new infections as scientists worked to fast-track potential therapies.
This unfolding tragedy underscores the complex nature of 21st century health care. Deeply held cultural practices — for example, how we treat the bodies of people who have died — can create a path for infection from person to person. Meanwhile, people unwittingly carry disease overnight from one country to another. A growing and increasingly urban human population increases stress on public health systems in the world’s poorest countries. And a warming climate is expanding habitats for pathogens and contributing to destructive weather events (storms, heat waves, floods) that put people at risk.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that human health — one of Oregon State’s three signature areas of distinction — encompasses a diversity of initiatives across disciplines. At OSU, the Division of Health Sciences fosters collaboration among researchers in the colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacy, Science and the state’s only accredited school of public health, the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. They are joined by colleagues in Engineering, Agricultural Sciences, Liberal Arts, the Linus Pauling Institute and the Environmental Health Sciences Center. Extension faculty, long a powerful resource in agriculture and nutrition, are ramping up their activities in community health.
A review of FY14 research funding at OSU concluded that health accounts for a share of grants and contracts that is roughly equal to each of four research thrusts addressing global challenges: marine studies to enhance the health of ocean and coastal systems; climate change and adaptation; food and water security and safety; and sustainable energy and the built environment.
Moreover, effective solutions to problems require more than science and technology. Unless innovations are accepted by people and communities, they will fail to achieve desired impacts. We must engage the social sciences and humanities as well.
Oregon State researchers have already made significant contributions to a healthy society. They have developed cancer therapies, advanced the science of antioxidants, identified candidates for new prescription drugs, taken measures to reduce antibiotic resistance and developed exercise programs and technologies to benefit the elderly. Our scientists are tracking airborne pollutants, some of which are known carcinogens, and evaluating their consequences for human health.
OSU is also contributing to Ebola control. One of the leading drug candidates has emerged from collaboration between an Oregon State scientist and the pharmaceutical company Sarepta Therapeutics, which traces its roots to OSU. Ebola is only the latest chapter in the ongoing story of Oregon State’s drive to address the health-care challenges of the future.
Ron Adams is the Interim Vice President of Research at Oregon State University.