Gates grant to WSU 'transformational'

Mega-grant equips global animal health school to advance its goal—improving human health and well-being
Published on April 15, 2008
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CaterpillarThe Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has gifted Washington State University with the largest private grant in its 116-year history.

The $25 million grant will help construct the flagship building of the university's fledgling School for Global Animal Health.

Washington State has long been recognized for its efforts to solve global health challenges. The idea of creating an entity dedicated to that purpose began coalescing two years ago, and it was decided within the past year that the intended scope justified formation of a school. 

Solving the challenge of global poverty is not possible without a focus on animals. Controlling infectious diseases at the animal-human interface is fundamental to eliminating the impact of these diseases on human health and well-being."




The school's mission and the capital grant are seen as transformational.

ButterflyDr. Guy Palmer is director of the school, which already exists operationally and is housed within the current Animal Disease Biotechnology Facility. He is the Regents Professor of Pathology and Infectious Diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Why we say this is transformational is that this is a school—rather than a small center or group of faculty—with a targeted mission. While it's aligned with the larger mission of veterinary medicine, we're specifically focused on improving human health and well-being by better control of animal diseases."

Dr. Palmer acknowledged the importance of centers such as the new National Centre for Zoonosis Research based at Liverpool University in England.

"But at the moment, what makes our school unique is we're not simply focused on zoonotic or emerging diseases but also on the dependence of human health, food security, and economic security on animals, especially livestock," he said.

Control of livestock diseases on small-holder farms such as those in eastern Africa has an amplified impact on the economic well-being of families, he explained. Neglected animal diseases have a disproportionate influence on human health in developing, tropical countries.

WSU officials and Fil Randazzo, PhD, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Elson S. Floyd, PhD, president of Washington State University; Dr. Guy Palmer, director of the School for Global Animal Health, WSU; Dr. Warwick Bayly, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, WSU; Fil Randazzo, PhD, senior program officer, Global Health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Dr. Terry McElwain, executive director, Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, WSU; and Brenda Wilson-Hale, JD, vice president for university development, WSU.

"Our goal isn't that we will stay unique. We would love to see other universities developing this kind of mission," Dr. Palmer said.

The school will focus on the following three interrelated approaches:

  • vaccine development and deployment—creating novel vaccines to control major vector-borne diseases of livestock that are an impediment to economic development in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America
  • emerging pathogen and disease detection—identifying determinants of pathogen emergence that will allow early intervention by health care organizations
  • control of disease transmission from animals to humans—pursuing innovative solutions for preventing zoonotic diseases through vaccination and other strategic interventions in animal populations and the environment, to reduce pathogen levels below transmission thresholds

The school will continue to be part of WSU's emphasis on vector-borne diseases, which need more study in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and South America, and southern and Southeast Asia. Researchers at WSU also have considerable expertise in food-borne and water-borne diseases.

"The key to this (initiative) is strong interaction with veterinarians and veterinary medicine. That's where the core expertise is. They have a unique window on the animal-human interface."


While drawing on professionals from across the university, the school over the next few years will recruit expertise in zoonotic diseases, animal health policy, and metrics, which takes in areas such as economics and rural sociology. Metrics data will enable the school to evaluate whether an intervention—be it a policy, a vaccine, or a treatment—is a cost-effective measure.

To expand the cadre of animal health professionals in biomedical research and public practice, a major expansion of the graduate programs in the College of Veterinary Medicine is planned. 

"The key to this (initiative) is strong interaction with veterinarians and veterinary medicine," Dr. Palmer said. "That's where the core expertise is. They have a unique window on the animal-human interface."

Dr. Warwick Bayly, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, said, "Solving the challenge of global poverty is not possible without a focus on animals. Controlling infectious diseases at the animal-human interface is fundamental to eliminating the impact of these diseases on human health and well-being."

The school's mission meshes with the one-health concept, which integrates animal, human, and environmental health for the benefit of all. Dr. Palmer noted that the school's approach includes an environmental component mainly in scenarios where it has a direct impact at the animal-human interface, such as animals being reservoirs for transmission of gastrointestinal pathogens.

Dr. Lonnie J. King, chair of the AVMA One Health Initiative Task Force, commented, "The Gates Foundation grant is a wonderful acknowledgement and compliment for Washington State University. However, it is even more significant for veterinary medicine. Improving animal and human health in today's global community is both an obligation and responsibility for our profession.

"The fund gives WSU a remarkable opportunity to help lead academic veterinary medicine toward successfully working in the world of 'one health.' I congratulate the WSU team and am thankful for their vision, leadership, and commitment to address this critical 21st century challenge."

Gates Foundation representatives and university officials held the initial talks about funding. When they proved to be productive, Drs. Palmer and Terry McElwain engaged in dialogue with staff from the foundation's Global Health Group. Dr. McElwain is professor of pathology in the veterinary college and executive director of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at WSU.

Dr. Palmer said, "Our concept fit well within the overall portfolio of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is improving not only human health but human well-being, especially for the world's most poor—those people living on less than $2 per day. That's about three billion people."

Another factor in the school's favor was that it is located in Washington, where it can interface with other global human health expertise that is concentrated in the Puget Sound region. Many of the institutions and organizations, including the Gates Foundation itself, are members of the Puget Sound Partners for Global Health, a collaboration of researchers, health care professionals, students, and nongovernmental organizations.

The partners' largest initiative is the Washington Vaccine Alliance, focusing on control of diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans and cause diarrhea.

In Washington, the commitment to global health has a statewide context. Dr. Palmer noted, "The state of Washington is very interested in global health not only as it affects the state and the health of humans here, but also as part of a broader vision about how it fits into the world. Washington State University fits well into that as a synergistic component of this much larger effort in global health."

Far from an abstract concept for the public to buy into, Dr. Palmer said the school's work is a rather easy sell when he offers a familiar analogy. He tells people how the most uniformly fatal human infectious disease—rabies—is completely controllable not by vaccination of humans, but animals.

Dr. Palmer said the roots of the School for Global Animal Health reach back more than three decades. The philosophic and scientific underpinnings are traceable to the roles of two former professors, Drs. James Henson and Travis McGuire, who in the 1970s began collaborative research and graduate research training programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Today these programs also extend into Latin America.

Charlie Powell, public information officer for the WSU veterinary college, said, "There has been very much a dedicated focus to global animal health in this college ever since that started. Drs. McElwain and Palmer have formalized the concept, consolidated it into a school, acquired outside funding, and are now ready to take it into the next 30 to 50 years."

Construction of the new building with its research laboratories is projected to cost $35 million and represents the first phase in the school's capital plan. The long-term capital plan includes additional laboratory space for emerging disease diagnosis, surveillance, and test development.

"Having outstanding laboratory space will allow us to recruit the best people we can worldwide," Dr. Palmer said. The leading site under consideration is across from the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

As for measuring future success, Dr. Palmer said, "We want to see peer-reviewed science because it forms the basis for new methods of control. At the same time, we want that science not to be stuck in a library but deployed in terms of solutions.

"In the end, we will know we succeeded if we can go into an area and say the population is healthier, it is more economically secure, more children are completing primary school, microcredit schemes are working better—those kinds of things—and if we were part of the solution."