New tools could catch disease outbreaks earlier - or predict them
Every year, the villages which lie in the so-called ‘Nipah belt’— which stretches along the western border between Bangladesh and India, brace themselves for the latest outbreak. For since 1998, when Nipah virus—a form of hemorrhagic fever most common in Bangladesh—first spilled over into humans, it has been a grim annual visitor to the people of this region.
With a 70 percent fatality rate, no vaccine, and no known treatments, Nipah virus has been dubbed in the Western world as ‘the worst disease no one has ever heard of.’ Currently, outbreaks tend to be relatively contained because it is not very transmissible. The virus circulates throughout Asia in fruit eating bats, and only tends to be passed on to people who consume contaminated date palm sap, a sweet drink which is harvested across Bangladesh.
But as SARS-CoV-2 has shown the world, this can quickly change.
“Nipah virus is among what virologists call ‘the Big 10,’ along with things like Lassa fever and Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever,” says Noam Ross, a disease ecologist at New York-based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance. “These are pretty dangerous viruses from a lethality perspective, which don’t currently have the capacity to spread into broader human populations. But that can evolve, and you could very well see a variant emerge that has human-human transmission capability.”
That’s not an overstatement. Surveys suggest that mammals harbour about 40,000 viruses, with roughly a quarter capable of infecting humans. The vast majority never get a chance to do so because we don’t encounter them, but climate change can alter that. Recent studies have found that as animals relocate to new habitats due to shifting environmental conditions, the coming decades will bring around 300,000 first encounters between species which normally don’t interact, especially in tropical Africa and southeast Asia. All these interactions will make it far more likely for hitherto unknown viruses to cross paths with humans.
That’s why for the last 16 years, EcoHealth Alliance has been conducting ongoing viral surveillance projects across Bangladesh. The goal is to understand why Nipah is so much more prevalent in the western part of the country, compared to the east, and keep a watchful eye out for new Nipah strains as well as other dangerous pathogens like Ebola.
"There are a lot of different infectious agents that are sensitive to climate change that don't have these sorts of software tools being developed for them," says Cat Lippi, medical geography researcher at the University of Florida.
Until very recently this kind of work has been hampered by the limitations of viral surveillance technology. The PREDICT project, a $200 million initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development, which conducted surveillance across the Amazon Basin, Congo Basin and extensive parts of South and Southeast Asia, relied upon so-called nucleic acid assays which enabled scientists to search for the genetic material of viruses in animal samples.
However, the project came under criticism for being highly inefficient. “That approach requires a big sampling effort, because of the rarity of individual infections,” says Ross. “Any particular animal may be infected for a couple of weeks, maybe once or twice in its lifetime. So if you sample thousands and thousands of animals, you'll eventually get one that has an Ebola virus infection right now.”
Ross explains that there is now far more interest in serological sampling—the scientific term for the process of drawing blood for antibody testing. By searching for the presence of antibodies in the blood of humans and animals, scientists have a greater chance of detecting viruses which started circulating recently.
Despite the controversy surrounding EcoHealth Alliance’s involvement in so-called gain of function research—experiments that study whether viruses might mutate into deadlier strains—the organization’s separate efforts to stay one step ahead of pathogen evolution are key to stopping the next pandemic.
“Having really cheap and fast surveillance is really important,” says Ross. “Particularly in a place where there's persistent, low level, moderate infections that potentially have the ability to develop into more epidemic or pandemic situations. It means there’s a pathway that something more dangerous can come through."
Scientists are searching for the presence of antibodies in the blood of humans and animals in hopes to detect viruses that recently started circulating.
In Bangladesh, EcoHealth Alliance is attempting to do this using a newer serological technology known as a multiplex Luminex assay, which tests samples against a panel of known antibodies against many different viruses. It collects what Ross describes as a ‘footprint of information,’ which allows scientists to tell whether the sample contains the presence of a known pathogen or something completely different and needs to be investigated further.
By using this technology to sample human and animal populations across the country, they hope to gain an idea of whether there are any novel Nipah virus variants or strains from the same family, as well as other deadly viral families like Ebola.
This is just one of several novel tools being used for viral discovery in surveillance projects around the globe. Multiple research groups are taking PREDICT’s approach of looking for novel viruses in animals in various hotspots. They collect environmental DNA—mucus, faeces or shed skin left behind in soil, sediment or water—which can then be genetically sequenced.
Five years ago, this would have been a painstaking work requiring bringing collected samples back to labs. Today, thanks to the vast amounts of money spent on new technologies during COVID-19, researchers now have portable sequencing tools they can take out into the field.
Christopher Jerde, a researcher at the UC Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute, points to the Oxford Nanopore MinION sequencer as one example. “I tried one of the early versions of it four years ago, and it was miserable,” he says. “But they’ve really improved, and what we’re going to be able to do in the next five to ten years will be amazing. Instead of having to carefully transport samples back to the lab, we're going to have cigar box-shaped sequencers that we take into the field, plug into a laptop, and do the whole sequencing of an organism.”
In the past, viral surveillance has had to be very targeted and focused on known families of viruses, potentially missing new, previously unknown zoonotic pathogens. Jerde says that the rise of portable sequencers will lead to what he describes as “true surveillance.”
“Before, this was just too complex,” he says. “It had to be very focused, for example, looking for SARS-type viruses. Now we’re able to say, ‘Tell us all the viruses that are here?’ And this will give us true surveillance – we’ll be able to see the diversity of all the pathogens which are in these spots and have an understanding of which ones are coming into the population and causing damage.”
But being able to discover more viruses also comes with certain challenges. Some scientists fear that the speed of viral discovery will soon outpace the human capacity to analyze them all and assess the threat that they pose to us.
“I think we're already there,” says Jason Ladner, assistant professor at Northern Arizona University’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute. “If you look at all the papers on the expanding RNA virus sphere, there are all of these deposited partial or complete viral sequences in groups that we just don't know anything really about yet.” Bats, for example, carry a myriad of viruses, whose ability to infect human cells we understand very poorly.
Cultivating these viruses under laboratory conditions and testing them on organoids— miniature, simplified versions of organs created from stem cells—can help with these assessments, but it is a slow and painstaking work. One hope is that in the future, machine learning could help automate this process. The new SpillOver Viral Risk Ranking platform aims to assess the risk level of a given virus based on 31 different metrics, while other computer models have tried to do the same based on the similarity of a virus’s genomic sequence to known zoonotic threats.
However, Ladner says that these types of comparisons are still overly simplistic. For one thing, scientists are still only aware of a few hundred zoonotic viruses, which is a very limited data sample for accurately assessing a novel pathogen. Instead, he says that there is a need for virologists to develop models which can determine viral compatibility with human cells, based on genomic data.
“One thing which is really useful, but can be challenging to do, is understand the cell surface receptors that a given virus might use,” he says. “Understanding whether a virus is likely to be able to use proteins on the surface of human cells to gain entry can be very informative.”
As the Earth’s climate heats up, scientists also need to better model the so-called vector borne diseases such as dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. Transmitted by the Aedes mosquito residing in humid climates, these blights currently disproportionally affect people in low-income nations. But predictions suggest that as the planet warms and the pests find new homes, an estimated one billion people who currently don’t encounter them might be threatened by their bites by 2080. “When it comes to mosquito-borne diseases we have to worry about shifts in suitable habitat,” says Cat Lippi, a medical geography researcher at the University of Florida. “As climate patterns change on these big scales, we expect to see shifts in where people will be at risk for contracting these diseases.”
Public health practitioners and government decision-makers need tools to make climate-informed decisions about the evolving threat of different infectious diseases. Some projects are already underway. An ongoing collaboration between the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and researchers in Brazil and Peru is utilizing drones and weather stations to collect data on how mosquitoes change their breeding patterns in response to climate shifts. This information will then be fed into computer algorithms to predict the impact of mosquito-borne illnesses on different regions.
The team at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies is using drones and weather stations to collect data on how mosquito breeding patterns change due to climate shifts.
Lippi says that similar models are urgently needed to predict how changing climate patterns affect respiratory, foodborne, waterborne and soilborne illnesses. The UK-based Wellcome Trust has allocated significant assets to fund such projects, which should allow scientists to monitor the impact of climate on a much broader range of infections. “There are a lot of different infectious agents that are sensitive to climate change that don't have these sorts of software tools being developed for them,” she says.
COVID-19’s havoc boosted funding for infectious disease research, but as its threats begin to fade from policymakers’ focus, the money may dry up. Meanwhile, scientists warn that another major infectious disease outbreak is inevitable, potentially within the next decade, so combing the planet for pathogens is vital. “Surveillance is ultimately a really boring thing that a lot of people don't want to put money into, until we have a wide scale pandemic,” Jerde says, but that vigilance is key to thwarting the next deadly horror. “It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to keep looking.”
This article originally appeared inOne Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are increasing vulnerabilities to infectious diseases by land and by sea. The magazine probes how scientists are making progress with leaders in other fields toward solutions that embrace diverse perspectives and the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and the planet.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.