Rapid changes in genomic technologies are contributing to the development of more effective, personalized approaches to prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.

BRIDGES (Bridging Infectious Disease, Genomics, and Society) is a Center for Excellence in ELSI Research (CEER) supported by the National Genome Research Institute. BRIDGES addresses the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSIs) of advances in genomics that arise in the context of infectious diseases prevention and control.

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Applications of “personalized prevention” have focused primarily on chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and their behavioral risk factors including diet and smoking.

Infectious diseases, on the other hand, account for a significant component of disease burden worldwide, and are responsible for a large proportion of morbidity and mortality across all aspects of society. The prevention and control of infectious diseases and epidemics for both individuals and populations challenge medicine, public health, and domestic and international policy.

Applications of genomic technologies are providing insights into the evolution and spread of infectious diseases as well as differences in people’s susceptibility to and severity of infection and in their immune responses to prevention (vaccines) and drug therapies.

For example: there are genes that play a role in how likely an individual is to become infected with diseases including HIV, active tuberculosis, and chronic hepatitis C; particular gene variants are associated with the risk of becoming more severely ill from influenza infection; and people with certain forms of a gene (or genes) are less likely to be protected by the hepatitis B vaccine.

With the potential for tailored interventions for particular individuals, populations or subpopulations, the use of such genetic information for decision making in a clinical or public health setting might bring about new ELSI considerations.

A number of factors will contribute to the types of issues that arise, including characteristics of the disease in question (for example, how it is transmitted, whether it is acute or chronic, and whether it is vaccine-preventable or treatable), environmental/political/geographic challenges such as pandemic situations or resource scarcity, existing laws and policies, public attitudes, and cultural differences.

Ethical, legal, and societal issues that arise might include balancing health-related benefits and harms between individuals and the larger community, minimizing threats to individual privacy and autonomy, and ensuring just distribution of scarce resources. It will be important to have a way to identify, analyze and address the issues that accounts for the many contributing factors and challenges.

Center-Wide Aims
  1. To explore and analyze the ethical, legal, social and policy significance for P5 medicine of communicable disease transmission, and variation in the modes and patterns of transmission among diverse communities and populations, and to consider the role of P5 medicine in reducing disparities in infectious disease burden.
  2. To evaluate the ethical, legal and social tensions that arise with the application of Precision Medicine to infectious disease management at the level of individuals, communities and populations, and to inform policies that protect individuals and vulnerable populations while promoting the common good.
  3. To anticipate, evaluate and develop policy responses to ELSI issues as genomic technologies and information are applied to infectious disease prevention, outbreak control, and clinical care.

There are three distinct yet related research programs that fall under the Center-wide aims:

  • Research Program 1: Implications for the Research Enterprise
    Pilot Project: Genetic Variation, Research Cohorts and Vulnerable Populations at risk of HIV and HCV Infection.
    Project LeadersPriya DuggalChloe Thio
  • Research Program 2: Implications for Public Health Policy
    Pilot Project: Pandemic Prevention and Vaccinomics.
    Project LeadersDaniel Salmon
  • Research Program 3: Implications for Clinical Practice
    Pilot Project: Application of Genomics to Clinical Management of High-consequence Infections.
    Project LeadersLisa MaragakisBrian Garibaldi
Education and Career Development

By developing multiple education and career development opportunities, BRIDGES aims to identify, educate, and launch the next generation of scholars with particular interests in the ethical, legal, social and policy implications of genomics and infectious disease prevention, control and treatment.  Education and career development activities:

  1. Angie Boyce, BRIDGES co-investigator and Project Director, created a new course, Germs, Genes, Patients, Populationsthat examines past, present and future ELSI issues at the intersection of infectious disease and genomics. The course challenges individualistic assumptions in bioethical models with frameworks that consider the interactions between hosts, vectors, pathogens, and environments. How are individualistic conceptions of autonomy, privacy and liberty being challenged in an “omic” era of microbial multiplicity?
  2. Dr. Alexis Walker and Rebecca Wilbanks were recruited and started in September 2017 as fellows in the Berman Institute Hecht-Levi post-doctoral fellowship program. Alexis completed her PhD (May 2017) at Cornell University in the Science and Technology Studies program, and Rebecca received her PhD from Stanford’s program in Modern Thought and Literature in June 2017. Alexis has been directing BRIDGES Pilot Project 1 (PP1).  Rebecca brings a focus on the theme of “engineering life” from her previous research on synthetic biology.  In collaboration with BRIDGES co-investigators in the History of Medicine department, Rebecca is exploring the history and contemporary status of the genetically modified mosquito as a public health tool, and is particularly interested in questions of public engagement: should communities have a say in whether genetically modified mosquitos are released in their area, and if so, what would an ethical procedure for community engagement or community consent look like?
  3. Partial tuition support for jointly-enrolled Master of Bioethics Program student Hunter Smith working in this subject area.
  4. Mentorship from CEER co-investigators available to students pursuing theses, capstone projects, and other research on CEER-relevant topics. Programs may include but are not limited to the Genetic Counseling Training Program, the General Preventive Medicine Residency, masters and doctoral training in genetic epidemiology and infectious disease epidemiology, and preclinical students in the School of Medicine.
  5. Establishment of the Genomics and Society Mentorship Program for undergraduates from under-represented groups with demonstrated interest in the ethics of research, clinical care and/or public health. Beginning with a 10-week summer internship through the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and continuing for 15 months, Program participants will gain experience doing research centered on ethical, legal and social implications of genomics.

In the future, we plan to create a research education program for students from underrepresented groups; organize an ELSI Research Day to highlight ELSI research being undertaken at JHU and to foster new collaborations; develop a new genomics/infectious disease ELSI concentration for MBE and MPH students; and offer the 8-week course as a BI intensive.


Core Team

Co-Primary Investigators

Gail Geller, ScD, MHS
Director of Education Initiatives; Professor
Jeffrey Kahn, PhD, MPH
Andreas C. Dracopoulos Director; Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy


Debra Mathews, PhD, MA
Associate Director for Research and Programs; Professor


Alexis Walker
Hecht-Levi Fellow


Project Leaders


For more information, contact Gail Geller.