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June

June Liu

Year of Award: 2014 Award State: Australian Capital Territory Science > Biology
Science > General
To study the relationship between the myxoma virus and rabbits to understand the evolution of infectious agents for predicting emerging diseases in the future - USA

The increasing incidence of emerging infectious diseases poses great challenges for modern society.

Understanding how pathogens evolved in the past may help us predict how new pathogens could emerge and  evolve in humans, livestock and wildlife. Understanding  the evolution of virulence requires measurement of the virulence of samples collected during outbreaks and the analysis of the genetic evolution of these pathogens.

Two classic experiments in evolution of virulence happened when myxoma virus was released, first in Australia and later in Europe, during the 1950s as a biological control agent for European rabbits. This evolution is still ongoing. I used this model of myxoma virus and rabbits to understand the evolution of pathogens for better prediction of emerging diseases in the future.

The project was done at the Centre for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD) of Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in the USA. This research centre hosts distinguished scientists working across the broad area of infectious agents and diseases: from genes and proteins of pathogens to disease dynamics, by integrating knowledge and skills from disciplines such as disease ecology, epidemiology, virology, evolutionary biology, genomics, immunology and mathematical modelling. The people I met were: Professor Andrew Read, Head of CIDD; Professor Peter Hudson, Director of Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at PSU; Dr. Isabella Cattadori, Associate Professor of Biology at CIDD; Assistant Professor Matthew Ferrari at CIDD; Professor Grant McFadden, University of Florida.

To design and perform large scale animal experiments, which is essential for study of infectious pathogens and diseases. To handle rabbits and clinically evaluate disease processes and to conduct autopsies and collect appropriate specimens. To process and analyse these samples to understand the evolution of viral tropism.

Myxoma virus evolved quickly in European rabbits and its genome is very flexible for mutation. As humans and most animals can’t evolve as quickly as pathogens, we need to learn the principle of pathogen evolution and apply it for management of infectious diseases.

To control and prevent emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases for the long term, we need to continuously accumulate knowledge, improve technology and provide solutions with limited resources, guided by an optimized strategy to achieve best benefit/cost ratio for our investments. I recommend a Research Centre for Infectious Disease should be established to lead and coordinate the research in Australia to serve the purposes mentioned above. I believe  the positive impacts of such a research centre in  Australia addressing the challenge posed by pathogens on public health can be extended into industrial and political domains in our nation and in the world.

Learning from the 2014 Ebola epidemic, I recommend we should start discussing the importance of a leading agency to coordinate the control of infectious diseases at national level. As we are the host species of human pathogens, our behaviours determine largely the disease spread and dynamics. What this epidemic has shown is how difficult it is to change people’s behaviours. This suggests that social research is as important as the biological and medical studies and that multidisciplinary approach is essential for effective controlling of infectious disease outbreaks.

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