infectious disease concentration ms mbs story 700x550

KGI Offers New Infectious Diseases Concentration for MS and MBS Programs

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and student demand, Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) introduced a series of courses comprising a new Infectious Diseases concentration as part of the Master of Science in Applied Life Sciences (MS) and Master of Business and Science (MBS) programs. 

The MS program serves as a stepping-stone to a variety of research careers in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry and clinical and academic laboratories, and doctoral research and medical education. The MS Infectious Diseases concentration is designed to introduce the students to medical microbiology, infectious diseases, diagnostics, and therapies, including vaccines, epidemiology, and medical devices. 

The concentration combines existing KGI courses such as Advanced Pharmaceutical Discovery (which includes a drug repurposing for infectious diseases lab) with new courses such as Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and Virology and Epidemiology.

“As Joshua Lederberg eloquently noted, humans will always be challenged by pathogenic microbes, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a testament to this,” said Anastasia Levitin, MS Program Director and Professor of Practice in Translational Medicine. “I am proud that we could tap into the KGI collaborative power of faculty experts and offer such an impactful educational direction.”

The MS concentration, which is currently in its second semester, offers thesis and independent research projects, including bioinformatics projects to make applied predictions for future drug discoveries, projects in medical devices, and diagnostics for infectious diseases. The research in some teams has been very productive. The students have begun to write their preliminary manuscripts, which they will submit for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals for infectious diseases.

So far, the new concentration has generated much enthusiasm. 

“The students get very excited about it,” Levitin said. “I get a lot of feedback from the students after they take these classes, expressing how they got inspired by the material and want to do research in this field.”

Ultimately, students want to make their career meaningful, and they look for gaps in science that could be addressed in the future.”

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that infectious diseases will always pose a threat to global health and the economy. Many of the students want to dedicate their future careers to solving infectious disease problems. Thus, the number of students enrolled in the Infectious Diseases concentration grows by the day.

Last summer in anticipation of this new concentration, more than 200 undergraduates participated in KGI’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program. In addition to the drug discovery for infectious diseases track, participants could work on the public health, vaccine, and virology projects. The program also featured key opinion leaders in the field as part of the program speaker series.

KGI’s MBS program is also offering an Infectious Diseases concentration. Like the MS program, it covers the mechanisms and impacts of infectious disease, though it will focus on the topic more from an industry perspective.

“Twenty-five percent of the world’s deaths every year are due to infectious diseases,” said Joel West, MBS Program Director and Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship. “We felt the time was ripe for students to have a deeper understanding of how this works—not just in terms of the pathogens, but also in terms of how health officials, clinicians, and companies address these problems.” 

Many of KGI’s major employers, including Gilead (which developed one of the main therapies for COVID in its early rounds), treat infectious diseases. Therefore, West felt it was important for MBS students to have a background in both the science and the epidemiology of infectious diseases. 

“As Program Director, I’ve focused on helping students gain a concrete understanding of clinical needs,” West said. “Our MBS students all understand the process of developing a drug, but there’s no point in developing something unless it serves an unmet clinical need.”

When drugs are developed to treat a disease that has evaded scientists for years, the unmet need is obvious. For example, the first treatment for smallpox was approved in 2018.

“However, except for rare diseases, there are few low-hanging fruit in terms of completely unaddressed health problems,” West said. “Instead, new therapies target conditions that are not being treated well, so firms must identify an important unmet need and offer a meaningful improvement.”

West encourages MBS students to enroll in the concentration to better understand how and why diseases can be treated. These new infectious disease courses extend the business and science courses’ crucial synergies in the MBS program.

“Our business courses teach students the commercial aspects of the pharmaceutical industry, but our science courses are crucial to understand how cancer is different from HIV which is different from diabetes,” West said. “The better they understand the mechanisms of disease, the better they can evaluate the potential clinical and commercial impact of a new therapy.”