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BMB and Public Health

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

—Quote widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin

Members of this Department often get asked: Why study biochemistry and molecular biology in a public health setting? What does it mean? Yet when he founded the then named School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1916, William Henry Welch understood the need for a “biochemistry-oriented” basic science department and soon recruited Elmer V. McCollum to chair and anchor the Department of Chemical Hygiene.

Fast forwarding to our time, the Bloomberg School’s mission statement compellingly says that “The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the education of a diverse group of research scientists and public health professionals, a process inseparably linked to the discovery and application of new knowledge, and through these activities, to the improvement of health and prevention of disease and disability around the world.”

In our view, the goals and benefits of a biochemistry and molecular biology-oriented approach to public health are to further our understanding of the basic mechanisms responsible for the achievement, maintenance, and loss of homeostasis (i.e., normalcy) given an individual’s genetic inheritance, their age, and their exposure to the outside world (as determined by the environment that they live in, and the behavior-related choices that they make). Importantly homeostasis includes the capacity for adaptation, which is typically formidable in biological systems. Exceeding this capacity often represents the first steps toward pathogenesis and overt disease. The same principles apply, of course, to populations. This defines, to a large extent, what this department is all about.

Here are some relevant examples of biology that is relevant to our mission:

  • All cancers begin with an initiating event—invariably an inheritable alteration in the genome that was not properly repaired as part of normal homeostasis. What goes wrong to account for this failure?
  • Similarly, neurological dysfunction underlies all forms of dementia, and in many such cases the dysfunction stems from excessive accumulation of misfolded proteins that were not properly handled by so-called quality control mechanisms. The latter still represents an emerging field of research, and the potential for discovery is enormous.
  • Aberrant intermediary metabolism along with a complex set of interrelationships between behavior and genetic determinants underlie type II diabetes and obesity, two linked conditions that have reached epidemic proportion in the United States and throughout the world.
  • The remarkable ability of pathogens to change their surface characteristics, to escape immune surveillance by various other means, and to subvert host biological processes accounts for the prevalence and morbidity associated with infectious diseases. We are tackling such issues in the context of our efforts centered on malaria.
  • Finally, and reaching back to McCollum’s immense legacy, nutritional determinants and other potential environmental stressors impact normal processes such as reproductive fitness and the course of most diseases. The Department has a long-standing expertise in the biology of stress.

Understanding such phenomena and many others defines who we are, and what we do, as biochemists, cellular and molecular biologists operating in a public health setting. Join us!