A positive from pandemic: Increased interest in studying infectious diseases

Perlin, head of HMH’s Center for Discovery and Innovation, says research center has been flooded with people considering career in field

Dr. David Perlin at the CDI. (File photo)

There aren’t a lot of doctors like David Perlin, the highly accomplished and globally recognized biomedical researcher who runs the Center for Discovery and Innovation for Hackensack Meridian Health as its chief scientific officer.

But it’s not just his world-class smarts that sets Perlin apart — it’s his willingness to devote himself to the important (but far from glamorous) work of developing molecular insights and technologies to detect, combat and prevent deadly infections.

That may be changing.

The work of Perlin and other infectious disease specialists during the pandemic not only drew appreciation from others — it has spurred a new generation of scientific researchers to consider the field.

“I’ve been approached by numerous clinicians, physician scientists, Ph.D. scientists, master’s students and others who want to work with us,” he said. “We’re flooded with people. That’s a great problem to have — and that hasn’t always been the case.

“There was a long period of time where physicians didn’t want to go into infectious diseases because it was a poor-paying specialty. Now, across the board, there are many more people who are interested.”

Perlin said the interest in global health issues has never been higher.

“This is certainly a collateral benefit, if there could one for such a devastating disease,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a resurgence and a bit of a renaissance in attracting really high-quality talent into the field.”

That’s just the first goal, Perlin said.

The second? Eliminating the need for any at all.

Perlin is half-joking when he makes the statement, but there is an aspirational goal to it.

“Ultimately, all of us would love to do is put infectious disease specialists out of business,” he said. “Because, to do that, we have to prevent all diseases. I’d say for oncology, too. Wouldn’t we want to have prevented all cancers?”

The reality, of course, is that infectious diseases always will be with us.

Perlin honored

Why Dr. David Perlin, winner of 2023 Sol Barer Award for Vision, Innovation and Leadership, feels discoveries will come faster in future. Click here for the story.

That’s why Perlin’s research emphasizes studies to diagnose and overcome high threat bacterial, fungal and viral infections in high-risk patients by exploiting insights obtained from molecular investigations of drug resistance, pathogenicity and host response to improve current therapies, and develop novel drugs and diagnostics.

His work, however, is not a long-term play. Perlin and others in his field get up each day wondering, ‘When’s the next big thing going to hit?’

“We have to,” he said. “We have to anticipate what the problem is going to be and develop countermeasures.

“So, fundamentally, we recognize that, each year, there’s a potential threat out there. What we have to do is have the technology, the know-how and the resources to be able to address these in real time. I think that’s really the key.

“CDI was created to fuse science into the clinic and do it in real time — meaning that patients could benefit from it at a point in time when it’s needed, not years later.”

That’s why, Perlin said, more doctors are needed in the specialty — one that suddenly is shining in a positive light.

“What COVID-19 did was drive a conversation that highlighted the important role that academic science plays in creating clinically important solutions,” he said.