For centuries, universities have been at the forefront of scientific research and development, with the brightest minds using the most current technologies and state-of-the-art facilities to tackle threats to human health.
Recently, populations across the globe have encountered a growing number of previously unknown diseases. Zika, H1N1 and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) weren’t the first global epidemics, and they unfortunately won’t be the last. A recent study suggests there are more than 300,000 pathogens yet to be discovered, with some even having the ability to spread between humans and our animal counterparts.
“The world’s scientific community is focused on how to improve detection and responses to emerging diseases such as Zika virus and Ebola,” said Simon Reid, Associate Professor of Communicable Disease Control at The University of Queensland (UQ), an institution that has played a major role in the battle to control and prevent infectious diseases.
Image courtesy of The University of Queensland
Such is the impact of the university’s research in infectious diseases, it was recently awarded kick-starter funding of AUS$50,000 to unite Brisbane-based scientists and researchers in the fight against the Zika virus.
With help from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Queensland’s scientists are using the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre grant to develop new weapons against this devastating virus.
Professor Paul Young, Head of UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said the UQ and QIMR Berghofer teams had been studying dengue virus, a direct relative of Zika, for many years, working on ways to diagnose, prevent and treat infection, and gain a clearer understanding of how this virus can cause such a severe disease. The teams now are contributing to global efforts aimed at combatting Zika, which has so far ravaged regions of South America and threatens to spread further afield.
“This timely funding will help build our local collaboration,” Professor Young said.
He said that the mosquito-borne viral disease caused fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, and had also been known to obstruct brain development in new-born babies.
“Zika is of particular relevance to Queenslanders as it is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito,” he said.
Aedes aegypti mosquito. Image via Wikipedia
“As this mosquito is prevalent in North Queensland, there is a real risk of Zika outbreaks in the north of the State.”
QIMR Berghofer researchers will assess the danger of Australian mosquito populations to transmit a variety of Zika strains under different climate conditions. They will also look at virus interactions with the Asian Tiger Mosquito, Aedes albopictus, which is currently implicated in a dengue outbreak in Queensland’s Torres Strait islands.
Professor Young is working with fellow virologists Professor Alexander Khromykh, Professor Roy Hall and Dr Helle Bielefeldt-Ohmann at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre and the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, and Professor Greg Devine and Professor Andreas Suhrbier at QIMR Berghofer.
The researchers have a solid track record in developing diagnostic tests, antiviral drugs and vaccines against other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, West Nile and Chikungunya.
Image via Flickr
Professor Young says the team is working to develop rapid and portable laboratory tests to detect infection in people returning to Australia from areas infected by Zika, and to monitor local mosquitoes for the virus.
The power of UQ’s research into infectious disease is something that benefits the entire global population. And for students hoping to start a similar journey into the realm of infectious disease, there is plenty more to be done.
“The world will not prevent the next global pandemic using ‘business as usual’ thinking. We need to acknowledge we live in a rapidly converging world where solutions cross all sectors of society,” Associate Professor Reid said.
“But this is not enough because the emergence of diseases is largely driven by changes in human societies.
“The only thing that will change the drivers of disease is a fundamental rethink about how we co-exist with our environment.”
Image courtesy of The University of Queensland
This article was sponsored by The University of Queensland, which is ranked among the world’s Top 50 universities in the QS World University Rankings 2015/16. UQ’s Faculty of Science is an active hub of some of the most innovative thinkers, teachers, scientists and scientific programs in the world. Its state-of-the-art facilities, spread across the university’s St Lucia and Gatton campuses, means UQ students can choose from the broadest spectrum of scientific disciplines Australia has to offer. The faculty blends the study of agriculture and animals, biomedical and biological sciences, chemistry, earth sciences, food sciences, geography, marine science, maths and physics, planning, the environment and veterinary science.