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Google that virus
September 2009
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author
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BRANFORD, Conn.—Roche and Google.org announced July 28 a joint project to demonstrate the feasibility of developing a multidisciplinary surveillance, research and response system that will enhance the ability to predict and prevent emerging infectious diseases in East Africa. To this end, Roche has donated a Genome Sequencer FLX system, which is intended to be the backbone of this project.

"We are proud to work with Google.org, and the dedicated research organizations in Kenya to bring this technology to a region of the world where novel viruses frequently emerge," says Chris McLeod, CEO of 454 Life Sciences, a member of the Roche Group. "We are confident that access to the 454 Sequencing Systems will improve monitoring of novel infectious diseases and enable faster discovery in case of an outbreak."

The project will focus primarily on arboviruses—those viruses that are carried by arthropods, in particular blood suckers like ticks, or even by blood-sucking insects. Arboviruses represent a large group of viruses that frequently cause emergent disease, but the project will being by tackling just one such disease, Rift Valley Fever (RVF), a lethal disease of livestock and people caused by an arbovirus spread by mosquito vectors. Emerging infectious diseases are a significant burden to our global economies and public health systems. Overall, approximately 70 percent of emerging diseases are zoonotic, meaning that they are transmissible between humans and animals, one of the reasons for the focus on RVF initially.

The initiative will primarily focus on three activities.

First, it will survey human, livestock, wildlife and vector populations to monitor the circulation transmission and maintenance of arboviruses within them, with a focus on the RVF virus.

Second, it will employ cutting-edge genomics and knowledge management systems to aid in the understanding of the dynamics and diversity of disease-causing agents, their vectors and their hosts.

Finally, the initiative calls for linking this new information to existing risk information and decision support tools. The idea there is to help provide early warning of disease outbreaks and enable rapid responses to control them.

Google.org, which is the philanthropic arm of Google.com, provided a $5 million grant to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) and its partners late last year to enhance insect-carried disease discovery and surveillance of East Africa.
In Nairobi, icipe will participate in the project along with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI); Kenya's national organizations for health, which are the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Public Health and Kenya Medical Research Institute; Kenya's Department of Veterinary Services and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute; and Kenya Wildlife Services.

"We will be fortunate to have a GS FLX instrument initially donated to support the Arbovirus infection surveillance in Kenya, with plans to subsequently train and bring on board other research partners in East Africa," says Christian Borgemeister, director general of icipe. "The East African region is known as one of the major hot beds for emergence of new infectious viral agents and new strains of known viruses. The region has also experienced large epidemics of arboviral diseases, such as Rift Valley Fever, Dengue and Yellow Fever just to mention a few. Surveillance to monitor circulation of such agents is critical in informing public health decision for early warning and response."

The Roche Genome Sequencer platform will be housed in the ILRI's laboratories in Nairobi as part of a regional joint venture called Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BecA). The ILRI-BecA Hub provides a biosciences research and bioinformatics platform linked to a network of laboratories distributed throughout Eastern and Central Africa.

The 454 Life Sciences sequencing system has proven to be a powerful pathogen discovery tool in a series of recent novel virus outbreaks, according to Roche. In late 2008, for example, the system was used to discover a new zoonotic virus responsible for a highly fatal hemorrhagic fever outbreak in South Africa. Earlier that year, as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, the system was used to identify a previously undetected virus responsible for the death of three transplant recipients in Australia.

"This new technology will play a very important role in promoting the capacity of surveillance and research groups in East Africa, to leap over constraints of currently available technologies and be able to discover infectious agents circulating unrecognized in our environment and monitor the evolutionary trends in the viral pathogens in order to remain current with the diagnostics and management options," says Rosemary C. Sang, a research scientist with icipe.

Google.org has announced grants of more than $15 million to support partners working in Southeast Asia and Africa to prevent the next pandemic, and the organization's Predict and Prevent initiative is supporting efforts to identify hot spots where diseases may emerge, detect new pathogens circulating in animal and human populations, and respond to outbreaks before they become global crises.

"Business as usual won't prevent the next AIDS or SARS. The teams we're funding today are on the frontiers of digital and genetic early detection technology," Dr. Larry Brilliant, chief philanthropy evangelist and former executive director of Google.org. "We hope that their work, with partners across environmental, animal, and human health boundaries, will help solve centuries-old problems and save millions of lives."

Another example of the growing commitment to infectious disease issues at Google.org came recently in the establishment of Flu Trends in November 2008. By tracking the popularity of certain search engine queries online, Google engineers had discovered that they can accurately estimate the level of flu in each state of the United States, in near real time. That led to the launch of the tool, Flu Trends, to makes this information accessible to all.

During the last flu season, Google reported that it had shared its preliminary Flu Trends results with the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found that its search-based flu estimates had a consistently strong correlation with real CDC flu data.
 
 
Code: E090914

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