Encouraging future leaders in biosecurity

mosquitos are seen in containers at a lab
Biosecurity experts gathered at Stanford on Sept. 13-14 as part of the conference, “Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity." Nelson Almeida, AFP (Getty Images)

Biosecurity leaders gathered at Stanford this week to offer new ideas and perspectives on a wide range of issues critical to societal health.

The conference, “Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity,” began Sept. 13 with a trip to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the East Bay. The second day featured a series of panel discussions on the Stanford campus. The fellows, chosen by the UPMC Center for Health Security, hailed from a wide array of backgrounds, including biological science, medicine, policy, the military, law, public health and the private sector.

Biosecurity and its relationship to global health is a key issue for Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), which hosted and helped organize the conference along with the sponsoring UPMC Center. The conference was sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the emerging leaders program run by the UPMC. 

With rapid advances in technology and science, biosecurity is increasingly focused on how harmful biological agents could become national security threats and risks.

‘A changing world’

David Relman, co-director of CISAC, addressed the fellows on Wednesday with remarks on the origins of CISAC’s involvement in biosecurity. Relman, a professor in the departments of medicine, and microbiology and immunology, later served as a panelist in a discussion on biosecurity and national and international policy.

Megan Palmer, a fellow and CISAC senior research scholar on biosecurity, panel moderator and organizer of the conference, described the program as one that “brings together some of the most talented and committed rising leaders from multiple organizations and disciplines critical to national and international biosecurity.”

She noted, “Stanford's biosecurity programs are focused on developing strategies for biosecurity in a changing world. Today we face complex biosecurity challenging ranging from emerging infectious diseases, intentional misuse of biotechnology, and potential accidents and unintentional consequences of our increasing ability to manipulate living systems.”

At the same time, biotechnology continues to be an important and growing part of the global economy, Palmer said. “Our scholarship and engagement work seeks to developing new ways to think about and act in this changing environment.”

Research focus

Through the “emerging leaders” program, fellows deepen their expertise in biosecurity, build leadership skills, and forge networks of lasting professional relationships, she added.

The two-day conference included talks on threat awareness, biodetection, a “viral storm” exercise, bioengineering research, computational biology and national security, biosecurity and national and international policy, the evolving biotechnology field, among other topics.

Stanford participants and speakers included CISAC’s William Perry, the former secretary of defense; Drew Endy, a Stanford associate professor of bioengineering; Tim Stearns, chair of the biology department; Milana Trounce, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine; and Manu Prakash, assistant professor of bioengineering.

CISAC activity in biosecurity includes research on:

  • Risks in misusing the emerging life sciences;
  • Social and political factors behind drug-resistant antibiotics, leading to an tight pipeline for new drugs;
  • Examining the ethical responsibilities of scientists in this field and the needs for regulation;
  • Anticipating and pre-empting the misuse of biotechnology by people with the intent to do harm.

Matthew Watson, a senior analyst for the UPMC Center, said, “It is difficult to imagine a more fitting venue for the fall Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity workshop than Stanford. Few institutions can bring together this array of world class talent, including leaders from national security, the life sciences, and the private sector.”

Back in February, the UPMC Center for Health Security chose its 2016 fellows and launched the program with a Washington, D.C. workshop in March.