With his curly locks, beard, and swarthy complexion, epidemiologist Nathan Wolfe seems to fit right in with the hunters he works with in Cameroon. Sometimes, he even wears one of their traditional robes, blue with gold embroidery, just in case.
"He's quite well-accepted," says Don Burke of Pittsburgh University, his former postdoctoral adviser who met Wolfe at a conference on emerging diseases. They shared a common interest in the role of nonhuman primates in transmission, and Wolfe joined Burke to help start a study in Cameroon.
Upon arriving at a tiny village, Wolfe meets with elders, holds tribal meetings, and befriends the townspeople while learning dialects and how to wheel and deal like a local. Burke vouches that Wolfe's a "ferocious bargainer."
Local villagers help Wolfe study human disease back to its source: possibly the bushmeat favored by Cameroon hunters or the live and freshly butchered animals sold in wet markets in Asia. He and colleagues collect blood blots from the hunters and their prey, looking to molecular biology to tell the epidemiologic story. One big story emerged in 2004: Gorilla-to-human transmission of retroviruses occurs under natural circumstances as primary infections.
Traditional thinking in epidemiology held that successful cross-species transmission is a rare occurrence. "Nathan puts some old ideas on their head," says Linda Rosenstock, dean of public health at the University of California, Los Angeles. His continued partnerships in the region led to the discovery of two AIDS family viruses, HTLV-3 and HTLV-4, not previously documented in humans.
Wolfe worries how the current era of discovery will be judged: "In a hundred years, people will look back at this period and say that we spent quite a bit of time and energy in the important task of controlling diseases that became already established and not on how we can forecast the new pandemics in the future."
In hopes of more predictive information, the National Institutes of Health granted Wolfe a $2.5 million Pioneer Award to create a global surveillance system that would catch and mitigate potential epidemics. With about 20 collaborators, Wolfe is now expanding his projects to other parts of Africa and in Southeast Asia.
Burke says the work represents a new way of thinking. "If you just think that medical research is stopping at the bedside, that isn't a very broad view. Nathan goes from the bench to the bush."