The disease detectives

Published: 9 August 2014

How do you sum up the collective work of researchers from the fields of veterinary science, genetics, epidemiology, virology, ecology, mathematics, physics, biology, economics, computing science and social sciences?

Dr Tiziana Lembo and local partners pictured treating a buffalo in Tanzania

How do you sum up the collective work of researchers from the fields of veterinary science, genetics, epidemiology, virology, ecology, mathematics, physics, biology, economics, computing science and social sciences?

‘One health’ is the term that is often used to describe the multidisciplinary approach of the Boyd Orr Centre for Population & Ecosystem Health. Its research addresses the links between human activity, ecological changes and the overall health of ecosystems that include humans, domestic animals and wildlife.

It is hugely relevant to many of the major human and animal health challenges facing the world today, including zoonotic diseases, in which a pathogen jumps species from an animal host to infect a person, and it is an approach that has proved to be highly successful. The centre has recently been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education – the highest form of national recognition open to a UK academic or vocational institution.

Professor Rowland Kao, the centre’s former-director, studies infectious disease dynamics, with a recent focus on the tracking of bovine tuberculosis – an issue that has been in the news in recent months over the controversial badger cull in parts of the UK – and foot-and-mouth disease, which devastated parts of the farming industry in 2001. Research at the centre involves the use of whole genome sequencing to track the virus as it mutates, but Professor Kao’s particular interest is in using it to augment social network analyses to develop theoretical models of disease transmission.

Beyond the biology, one health also considers the human factor. Unless we understand the relationship between how people behave and changing economic environments, Professor Kao argues, we will not understand how to control human or livestock diseases. The highly collaborative nature of the research undertaken in the Boyd Orr Centre enables this to happen.

‘I think the combination of two things – people’s willingness to work on real-world problems and a genuine interest in the underlying science – is a large part of our edge,’ he says. ‘The other thing is the diversity of the people involved.

disease 1

Working with others

Much of the centre’s work has been done in Tanzania, where one particular project, led by Dr Tiziana Lembo (pictured), has been the strategic control of endemic foot-and-mouth disease. The project operates across livestock farms, working with communities including the Masai tribes. It also involves examining the wildlife inside protected national park areas, particularly susceptible buffalo, to understand their role in maintaining the disease in ecosystems where livestock and wildlife co-exist.

The greater the movement of the animals, the greater the risk of disease-spread. Tanzanian communities are often forced to move their livestock to find sufficient water or grazing, or to sell them in neighbouring Kenya. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease can have a devastating effect on a herd’s viability and economic return. To address these issues, the Boyd Orr Centre scientists are supporting Tanzanian government officials to design systems that will allow them to control the disease more efficiently. Future plans include setting up vaccination trials and the Glasgow group has also been training field teams to carry out sampling and field diagnostics.

Reducing the risk

As a veterinary specialist in tropical medicine, Dr Lembo spends much of her time literally in the field. Mathematician Dr Louise Matthews, however, works largely, as she puts it, ‘at the clean end of things’.

Dr Matthews is the current co-Director of the centre (together with Dr Richard Reeve); her expertise lies in the creation of simulation models of disease outbreaks. ‘You couldn’t just go out into the field and try a hundred different ways of trying to control a disease, but if you’ve got good models, you can explore them in simulation,’ she explains. ‘That’s the sort of mathematical – or computational – approach that I bring to it.’

Dr Matthews is currently involved in projects to tackle E.coli 0157 and salmonella. Other members of her team – at the dirty end – take samples of cow-pats to see how many E.coli bacteria are being shed by the cattle. While most of the time cattle shed only low levels of bacteria, there is occasional super-shedding: thought to be the major cause of transmission to humans. The team hopes to find an effective vaccine to reduce E.coli in the cattle population and consequently in humans too.

‘Real data with real diseases is often hard work,’ acknowledges Professor Kao. But with one recent study indicating that vaccines producing a 50% reduction in shedding frequency in cattle could reduce human cases of E.coli by nearly 85%, the results that the award-winning Boyd Orr Centre are seeking could be well worth it.

First published: 9 August 2014