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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

PREVENTING PANDEMICS, INTERDISCIPLINARILY

by Denise Caruso ~ May 11, 2007.
Permalink | Filed under: Hybrid Vigor, Planetary Life.

Via the blog at Genome Technology Online, I stumbled onto this terrific essay at The Scientist, called ‘A New Dynamic … Can a Penn State center predict and prevent the next pandemic?’

… During the breeding season, tiny leeches climb aboard the newts, sucking their blood, and possibly transmitting Icthyophonus, a fungus-like pathogen that hides in the newt’s muscle. Newts have other parasites, too. Tom Raffel, a postdoc at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD) at Pennsylvania State University, has documented more than 20 different parasites in Pennsylvania newts. Two are new to science.

In the past, a scientist might single out a pathogen, map its life cycle, and describe the consequences for its victims. Although pathogens represent more than half of all life on earth, only a small fraction have ever been studied. So, a new approach to infectious disease is taking root both around the world and here on the shores of Beaver Pond. Raffel doesn’t study newts, or leeches, or Icthyophonus. He studies the Beaver Pond community and the myriad interactions within. Just a few miles away at CIDD, researchers are looking at human pathogens, too - measles, influenza, and Escherichia coli among others - and trying to understand the communities of these pathogens within cities and within hosts, piecing together the way these interactions evolve over time.

Despite advances in vaccine strategies and drug treatments, many scientists worry that not enough is being done to suppress, let alone anticipate, the next pandemic. Scientists at CIDD are taking principles of population biology, community ecology, and evolution and wedding them to epidemiology, immunology, and genomics. This approach could help optimize vaccination strategies, design eradication programs, halt incipient pandemics, and it could identify potential zoonoses before they’ve infected humans. In the three short years that CIDD has been around, it’s become a hotbed of interdisciplinary collaboration with 12 faculty members from departments around the Penn State campus.

Daniel Falush, an evolutionary geneticist at Oxford University, describes one effect CIDD has had in the United Kingdom: “There was a great sucking sound because these famous British scientists were disappearing to Penn State.” Actually, Ottar Bjørnstad, a Norwegian mathematical ecologist, was the first to make the move to State College in 2001. At that time, Peter Hudson was at the University of Stirling in Scotland but was displeased with their new president, who he says wasn’t supportive of biology. When Penn State invited him for a visit, he loved the atmosphere, and it didn’t hurt that his friend Bjørnstad had already scoped out the local pubs. …

[snip]

The piece quotes Hudson as saying, “Our vision really is to have a systems approach to disease,” says Hudson. “Issues that go from intracellular interactions between viruses and cells right the way through to pandemics, something we call the protein-to-pandemic link.”

I daresay that reality will probably turn out to be a bit less linear than that, but at least their linear thinking is horizontal!

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