The Spread of Disease

It’s no secret that we humans are a pattern-seeking species, trying to organize the chaos that is our universe, our planet, and possibly our closets. This powerful ability allows us to make predictive models of all kinds, shapes, and sizes, unlocking the understanding of how things grow, survive, and deteriorate. This week we’ll be focusing on how scientists and innovators have applied these predictive skills when looking at how disease spreads across a species in order to best predict, or prevent it. Whether it’s geo-mapping zoonotic viruses or the fluid dynamics of a sneeze, you are sure to learn a thing or two at TEDMED 2018 about how pattern recognition could be our best shot at preventing the next pandemic.

With the recent outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we are once again reminded just how vulnerable humans are to viral threats. It’s with these types of threats in mind that leaders gathered to form the Global Virome Project (GVP), an innovative partnership to detect the majority of our planet’s unknown viral threats. Partners are working to develop a global atlas of these threats, with a goal of identifying and characterizing 99% of zoonotic viruses within 10 years of its inception in 2016. With an approximate 1.6 million viral species yet to be discovered in mammal and bird populations, there is much work to be done. Patterns will likely emerge as the map gains more detail, and thus the security system of prevention for these potential epidemics will increase in strength. Thanks to the work of Jonna Mazet, Anchor Author of the GVP, and her team, we can look forward to a future that will be focused more on prevention, and require less reactive treatment.

Mapping viruses are tricky for many reasons, one of which is animal populations shifting geographically. With the average global temperature on the rise, a lot of animal populations are disappearing in some locations, or migrating to new homes, and bringing their zoonotic viruses with them. Daniel Streicker, Senior Research Fellow and head of the Streicker Group at the University of Glasgow Institute of Biodiversity, is working to anticipate and prevent infectious disease transmission between species. Daniel is using patterns from the data of longitudinal field studies in wild bats to forecast how a disease like rabies could spread, giving the government the information they need to take preventative actions.

While it takes a bite for a vampire bat to spread rabies to humans, there are many diseases that spread through fluid transmission. Lydia Bourouiba focuses her research on exactly how fluid dynamics impact disease transmission by finding patterns in events like a human sneeze or cough. As the director of the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory at MIT, Lydia combines multiple disciplines to analyze pathogen transmission in humans, animals, and plants. Through their research, her team is developing models that improve our understanding of pandemics, and ultimately finding new ways for us to improve prevention and preparedness. By taking a close look at how a splashing droplet radiates its splatter, her team is able to see how much coverage a droplet of pesticide gets on a leaf. Prior to their work, studies of this kind were focused on more steady configurations, like water from a faucet. By looking at unsteady configurations, like sneezes and sprays, Lydia and her team are helping us to better understand the dynamic process of disease transmission.

Playing with fluid dynamics in a different way, Hive Innovator David Hoey and his team at Vaxxas are developing an advanced platform for needle-free vaccine delivery. Based in Australia, Vaxxas has run clinical trials of their Nanopatch™ technology to deliver vaccines, including one for Polio. While the format is revolutionary, using an ultra-high-density array of short projections to deliver the vaccine to the immune cells immediately below the skin’s surface, that’s not the only incredible aspect of this technology. By packaging the vaccine in the Nanopatch™, they have also made the vaccine shelf stable without refrigeration for more than a year at room temperature. This breakthrough solves one of the greatest challenges remote areas face with vaccines: the high cost of refrigerated transport of these life-saving serums. With their outstanding work, the team at Vaxxas is providing hope that we will one day be able to prevent and stop epidemics and pandemics.

Whether it’s by researching fluid dynamics like Lydia, or documenting the geolocation of the world’s zoonotic viruses like Jonna, it is clear that patterns are the key to preventing the spread of disease. Once we find those patterns, like Daniel did with bat migration, we are able to be smarter about vaccination resources and threat awareness. Fueling efforts for smarter preparedness are companies like Vaxxas, who is working to discover new ways to design vaccines in order to provide protection for the world’s most vulnerable populations. We hope you will join us at TEDMED 2018 to learn more about these fascinating Speakers and Innovators and their work to understand and prevent the spread of disease.