Dr. David Relman investigates the secrets of the life sciences to help build a safer world.
The Stanford microbiologist and professor of infectious diseases has been named the next co-director of the university’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). An adviser to the federal government on emerging biological threats, Relman believes his new role at CISAC will strengthen its core mission of making the world a safer place.
“There is a strong link between microbiology, infectious diseases and international security,” Relman said. “It is increasingly clear that the destabilizing effects of human population growth and displacement, environmental degradation and climate change are all mediated in part through the emergence and spread of infectious diseases. In addition, rapidly evolving capabilities of individuals in the life sciences around the globe make it increasingly likely that this science will be used to cause harm.”
Relman, the Thomas C. and Joan M. Merigan Professor at Stanford and chief of infectious diseases at the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, has advised the U.S. government about pathogen diversity, biosecurity and the future of the life sciences landscape. He is a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), chairs the Forum on Microbial Threats at the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. and has participated in a number of studies for the National Academies of Science.
"David Relman is one of the nation’s top scientists exploring the mysteries of infectious disease, a thoughtful adviser to policymakers, and an extraordinary colleague,” said Tino Cuéllar, a Stanford Law School professor and the center’s co-director. “He will make tremendous contributions to CISAC's leadership as we expand our activities on public health and biosecurity while continuing our work on arms control and nuclear security."
Founded nearly three decades ago, CISAC’s mission is to produce cutting-edge research and spread knowledge to build a safer world. Now a part of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), the center has a tradition of appointing co-directors – one from the social sciences and the other from the natural sciences – to advance the center’s interdisciplinary mission.
Relman will take up the post in January, when Siegfried Hecker’s term concludes after having served as co-director since 2007. Hecker, a nuclear scientist and director emeritus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is one of the world’s foremost experts on plutonium, nuclear weapons and nonproliferation. He will remain at CISAC and continue to teach in the department of Management Science and Engineering.
“It has been a personal pleasure to work with Sig,” said Cuéllar. “He has been an enormous asset to CISAC. He will continue to be a visionary leader on nuclear security and arms control issues throughout the world.”
Relman joined Paul Keim, acting chair of the NSABB, to address a CISAC seminar in March about their work in advising the government on the potential dangers of laboratory-engineered H5N1 avian influenza.
The advisory board had been asked to review two manuscripts that described the deliberate modification of the H5N1 avian influenza virus so as to be transmissible for the first time from mammal to mammal via a respiratory route. This provoked a debate in the scientific community about the risks of such work and whether the details of these experiments should be published – details that would enable anyone skilled in the art of virology and molecular biology to recreate these highly virulent and transmissible viruses. Some argued that the research could end up in the wrong hands. The board eventually recommended in a split decision that this research should be published.
“Life scientists need to be involved in discussions about the oversight of risky science and the responsible conduct of science, so that the potential benefits can be realized while the risks are minimized,” Relman said.
Relman will continue to run his research lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the VA Hospital in Palo Alto, where his focus is on the beneficial communities of microbes in the human body. He is president-elect of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a member of the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science. He received his S.B. in biology from MIT in 1977 and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1982. He completed his clinical training in internal medicine and infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“The appointment of a life scientist who focuses on infectious diseases and biosecurity is an innovative step for our work in international security and cooperation,” said Gerhard Casper, president emeritus of Stanford University and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Relman tells a story that illustrates his passion for scientific discovery. On a routine visit to his dentist about 15 years ago, he brought along his own test tube. He asked the dentist to give him some plaque that he had scraped off Relman’s teeth. He wanted to study his own bacteria.
“As a clinician, I can tell you my colleagues were not looking for new microbes to worry about,” Relman said. “Some of them believed there might well be some really weird new microbes in soil or in the ocean, but that the human microbial ecosystem was something that we understood quite well. Of course – that was wrong.”
Using DNA sequencing technology, he has since discovered hundreds of new bacteria in the human body.
“Our ability to predict the next important technical or conceptual advance in the life sciences is miserable, as is our ability to anticipate how these advances will be used,” Relman said. “But we can at least hope to engage the scientific community and the general public in discussions about our goals and our understanding of risks – and how best to mitigate them.”