Database to predict and prevent disease from spreading a world-first
16 March 2011
How diseases like swine flu and bird flu might arrive in Australia and spread could be accurately predicted in the future thanks to a world-first database that will be developed at the University of Sydney.
Professor Edward Holmes, an internationally renowned infectious diseases expert and the recipient of a five-year, $4 million National Health and Medical Research Council Australia Fellowship, is the researcher behind The Australian Disease Database.
"Given that a number of important viral infections have emerged in Southeast Asia, it is clear that Australia is at risk for emerging viruses in the future," Professor Holmes said. "My research will help in predicting what sorts of virus will emerge and how they will spread."
Professor Holmes' research aims to determine the rules that underpin successful host jumping: why, for example, influenza viruses are able to jump to humans from birds and pigs, while viruses such as Ebola or West Nile seem unable to.
"Knowledge of why some types of virus seem intrinsically better able to cross species boundaries than others will help us to predict, prevent, and control major disease epidemics in the future," Professor Holmes, currently based at The Pennsylvania State University, said.
His project will combine information from a growing database of virus genome sequences, with socio-economic and geographical information about Australia, including population densities, domestic and international flight traffic, major road networks, work patterns, and major landscape features such as the Great Dividing Range.
Professor Holmes said: "This unique resource will make it possible to predict how quickly and in what directions any new or existing pathogen will spread once it reaches Australia, and therefore how we might best control it.
"Emerging infectious diseases are one of the great health challenges of the 21st century. Environmental disruption, high population densities of humans, animals and crops, together with global climate change, migration and rapid transport to all parts of the world are converging to create opportunities for pathogens to dramatically change their host range."
Professor Robyn Overall, Head of the School of Biological Sciences said: "As viruses can jump species boundaries, an understanding of the range of habitats and biology of animals in Australia is an important element in modelling the emergence of medically significant viruses.
"Professor Holmes' appointment will forge a powerful link between the fundamental work of the School of Biological Sciences on evolutionary mechanisms at play in natural systems, and that carried out in the Sydney Institute for Emerging and Infectious Diseases on the emergence and spread of viruses that infect humans."
The National Health and Medical Research Council Australia Fellowships are awarded to outstanding health and medical researchers who have leading international status in their field.
Professor Holmes is due to commence his fellowship at the University of Sydney in early 2012.
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