by Fernando Quintero
In novels like "The Hot Zone" and movies like "Outbreak," which stars Dustin Hoffman as an infectious disease specialist who tries to stop an African virus from decimating the entire country while dealing with the divorce of his beautiful wife, scientific facts are stretched for the sake of melodrama.
But for John Colford Jr., new assistant professor of public health, the threat of emerging infectious diseases is quite real.
Colford's research interests include diseases from waterborne micro-organisms such as Cryptosporidium, which caused 400,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in Milwaukee in 1993 after the parasite got into the city's water supply.
"In the past three to four years, we've discovered that microbes are a lot more resistant than we ever thought," said Colford, a Berkeley graduate who received both his master's and doctorate degrees here. "There is a renewed concern over the nation's ability to control the spread of new and resistant infections."
Partly in response to the Wisconsin disaster, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which requires utilities to upgrade their treatment facilities. The Centers for Disease Control was also directed to collaborate with the Environmental Protection Agency to see how significant waterborne diseases are.
As an epidemiologic expert, Colford has worked as a professional consultant and has been invited to give presentations at a number of national and international scientific and professional meetings.
"The conclusion is that the risk of infection is worse than it was 10 years ago because there are more people with compromised immune systems--namely people with AIDS," said Colford.
Most recently, there has been a rise in drug-resistant tuberculosis among HIV-infected men.
Colford's studies of waterborne diseases in HIV-infected men eventually led to his second area of research interest: survival analysis of AIDS patients.
"I was studying Cryptosporidiosis in AIDS patients--Cryptosporidiosis came on the radar because of AIDS. Meanwhile, I was involved in discussions of Cryptosporidium in water supplies," said Colford. "My research marries my skills and background in methodology of research."
For his doctoral dissertation, Colford contrasts tree-based with traditional survival methods in the analysis of patients with HIV. "CART (Classification and Regression Trees) is a primary interest of mine. Trees that distinguish people. I look at the characteristics of people with AIDS who do poorly and those who do well," said Colford. "It's a new branch of statistics, an offshoot of classical statistical methods. Berkeley is good place to be for this type of research."
In his latest research, Colford points to the effects of drugs new on the market, specifically protease inhibitors. "We're seeing these Lazarus-like cases, where people who were near death have experienced miraculous recovery. But questions remain. How long do these effects last? Who doesn't benefit from these new drugs? It's too early to tell whether survival is truly being impacted. My hope is that it is."
In his research, Colford has collaborated with some of the state's top infectious disease specialists, including Berkeley professor of epidemiology Art Reingold as well as epidemiologists and biostatisticians at UCSF.
"John complements our faculty substantially, having a strong background in both epidemiology and environmental health," said Patricia Buffler, dean of public health. "His clinical background and association with UCSF is especially noteworthy because it will help us strengthen our collaborative efforts with San Francisco."
Colford is also an attending physician at Veteran's Hospital in San Francisco. "As an attending physician, it helps me to see how my research applies to real people," Colford said.
In addition to his research work, Colford, who has four children ages six, four, two and two months old, said he has enjoyed being back at Berkeley, especially to teach.
"The major difference in my life now is working with top-notch graduate students," Colford said. "Teaching them has become a major learning experience for me as well. It's been really satisfying seeing them spin off other projects of their own."