Skip to content

How close are we to a vaccine for malaria?

24 Apr, 2015

On the eve of World Malaria Day 2015, the global health community is celebrating the publication of the final data on the efficacy of the world’s most advanced malaria vaccine, RTS,S. Here, Professor Philip Bejon, Director of the Kemri-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya and an author of today’s Lancet Infectious Diseases paper, describes the 30 year journey scientists have taken to get to this point and his hopes for the malaria vaccines of the future…

Malaria prevalence in Africa, 2000-2010

Despite studying the disease and living in Kenya for some years, I’ve never had malaria.  Some of my colleagues have, and attitudes to catching malaria range from the matter-of-fact through to bravado. The ease with which we can access rapid diagnosis and treatment ensures that, for us, our attitudes don’t include any real fear. For many Kenyan children, who are less able to access care, malaria carries a much greater threat. A conservative estimate is that half a million children in Africa died of malaria last year. There are also well-documented knock-on effects on their nutrition and growth, their school attendance and their family finances as their parents seek treatment.

The global health community is united in its belief that there is a great need not just for better treatments for malaria, but for a preventative malaria vaccine. Today, a large group of scientists including myself have published the results of the largest ever malaria vaccine trial, conducted for the candidate vaccine known as “RTS,S”.  Our data show that the vaccine has some protective efficacy, but is by no means perfect.

There are now complex discussions and analyses to be done by regulators and policy-makers about cost-effectiveness before further decisions on the use of the vaccine are taken.   These decisions will take account of the millions of malaria episodes and deaths each year, the precise degree of efficacy demonstrated, how long protection lasts , data on safety and the cost of the vaccine and of delivering it.

Whatever the outcome of the regulatory and policy discussions, the positive impact of RTS,S on the field of malaria research is still dramatic. RTS,S has been in development for almost 30 years, and the thread of scientific discoveries leading to the development goes back decades further.  During that time there have been many false starts with vaccine candidates that were abandoned, or that were returned to the drawing board for redesigning.  However, we have learnt a lot from this long journey about what is required for a malaria vaccine, and, crucially, that our goal is possible.

B0006056 Mosquito, Anopheles stephensi in flightNow, the key question for researchers and the malaria community is whether we can speed up the process of making the next malaria vaccine. As with all research, increased funding and good collaboration certainly helps. The clinical development of the RTS,S vaccine has been accelerated by many organisations working to support a series of trials in Africa, working in collaboration with investigators based in African countries.

Can we shorten the clinical development?  The latter stages of large-scale testing took 5 years, including follow-up, and it’s hard to see how that could be contracted further.  The earlier phases of testing in smaller groups could perhaps be accelerated, and lessons learnt regarding how to maximize the immune response will stand us in good stead for the future.  We can draw on our partnerships and experience to repeat the process with any new vaccine.

Possibly the best way of accelerating future vaccine development is to understand more of the science leading up to vaccine design.  The guesswork required during the iterative process of vaccine testing in the field can be painfully slow. If we can reduce the guesswork by having more intelligence about the malaria parasite, then we will take fewer “false turns” that take us back to the drawing board.

We need to know more about how antibodies and immunity work, more about how the parasite evolves, and more about the most promising targets of immunity.  At the Kemri-Wellcome Trust programme we are committed to working on the basic science issues as well as the field testing of developing products, and we are joined in this by many other centres across Africa.  Studying natural immunity can give us important clues for the future – not necessarily in attempting to reproduce natural immunity, but in understanding which components of an immune response appear most promising as targets for a vaccine.

We should expect that the current result on RTS,S will have a dramatic and positive impact on the field of malaria vaccine development irrespective of the specific decisions that regulators and policy makers will take after viewing the data.  The results encourage us to believe that it is possible to make malaria vaccines that protect children – something that was by no means clear even 10 years ago.  My hope for the future is that we can encourage the brightest minds, especially among African scientists, to be applied afresh to the basic science of malaria, the technical challenges of vaccine development, and to obtaining the funds necessary to drive it forward at the maximum pace.

For more information about the Kemri-Wellcome Trust Research Programme visit their website, here.

Reference: ‘Efficacy and safety of RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine with or without a booster dose in infants and children in Africa: final results of a phase 3, individually randomised, controlled trial’ by the RTS,S Clinical Trials Partnership. Lancet Infectious Diseases

Images: (Top) Predicted 1 × 1 km spatial resolution Plasmodium falciparum parasite rate endemicity class maps of Africa Credit: Noor et al, in the Lancet(Bottom) Mosquito, Anopheles stephensi in flight Credit: Hugh Sturrock, Wellcome Images.

Image of the Week: Sequencing Ebola genomes

22 Apr, 2015

 

Our image – or in this case video – of the week is a time-lapse video of Professor Ian Goodfellow installing viral genome sequencer machines in Sierra Leone.

Professor Goodfellow and his colleagues from Cambridge University are working towards sequencing the viral genomes from infected Ebola patients. By making this sequence data available worldwide, and in real time, they are hoping that scientists will carry out research leading to new diagnostics, treatment and preventative strategies for Ebola.

As the time-lapse shows, the team are currently in Sierra Leone establishing high-throughput sequencing capability in one of the Ebola treatment centres. Once established, they hope to collect samples from infected patients, sequence them within a matter of hours and process the raw data to make the viral genome sequences available within a few weeks. This process could take months if the samples were to be brought back to the UK for analysis.

The team are working with the Sierra Leonean government to make genome data on the Ebola virus available as soon as possible on the website virological.org.

Sequencing the genome of a virus can tell us a lot about how it is spreading and changing as it passes from person to person. This information is invaluable to researchers, but the rapid sharing of data does not always occur. Often, data is not made available to the wider scientific community until researchers publish it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal – a process that can take several months.

Credit: Professor Ian Goodfellow

Call for Frontiers Innovators

22 Apr, 2015

Frontiers meetings stimulate innovation and provocative discussion about the future of health, helping to shape the Wellcome Trust’s strategy. The first in this year’s Frontiers series – ‘One Science: Life at the Interface’ – will explore new opportunities for convergence between the health, life, engineering and physical sciences that underpin biomedical research. We’re keen to hear fresh perspectives on the subject, so we are inviting applications from ambitious junior researchers to attend and become ‘Frontiers Innovators’ for the One Science event. Wellcome Trust Director of Strategy, Clare Matterson, explains…

Frontiers_976x150

Medicinal chemistry, genomics, proteomics and brain engineering are some of the areas where convergence of different sciences has proved successful. Despite these successes, there are many other areas where the benefits of interdisciplinary research need to be recognised and could lead to further improvements in health.

We hope that ‘One Science: Life at the Interface’ will be a provocative meeting to bring together a diverse range of people to spark new thinking and help us better understand how the Wellcome Trust and others can support collaboration across disciplines. In this meeting we hope to explore which structures and mechanisms enable and encourage interdisciplinary research, and help identify promising opportunities for collaboration – and we would like your input!

The meeting will take place on 22-23 September this year at the Wellcome Collection in London, and will bring together representatives from leading interdisciplinary institutes, international academics working at this interface or whose research could benefit from collaborations, anthropologists, the medical technology industry, commercial organisations, policy makers, and educators.

Key Themes

Some of the key themes for the meeting will be:

  • How might biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers be encouraged to address a wider range of biological and health problems?
  • What makes an environment conducive to interdisciplinary research?
  • What is the role of education and training for science at the interface?
  • What are the fundamental biological and health questions that need interdisciplinary research in order to progress?

Frontiers Innovators

We are offering expenses-paid places at this meeting for talented and ambitious junior researchers* looking to perform original interdisciplinary research spanning biology, chemistry, physics, maths, engineering, computational science and material science to improve health.

Whether you are already working at this interface or your research could benefit from collaboration, we want to hear your ideas for interdisciplinary research.

Up to ten people will be selected to act as Frontiers Innovators, and will be offered travel and accommodation to participate in this meeting. We would like you to attend and network with key leaders in the field, share and discuss your ideas for convergence in biomedical research, and give you the opportunity to be heard.

To apply please submit the following to F.Innovators@wellcome.ac.uk by Friday 12th June 2015:

  1. Your CV
  2. A video summary no longer than 3 minutes, detailing how you think interdisciplinary research can be used to achieve improvements in health, outlining a fundamental biological/ health question that could be addressed, and the structures necessary to support this research. You can either upload your video to the web and send us the link, or submit directly using a large data transfer site such as WeTransfer.

Alternatively you can submit your idea as a word document or PDF, no longer than one side of A4 to the email address above.

We look forward to receiving your applications to attend the meeting and explore your ideas on convergence. We will be in touch by the end of July to let you know if your application has been successful.

‘One Science: Life at the Interface’ takes place on 22 -23 September 2015 at the Wellcome Collection. If you have any questions about the application or the meeting, please email h.baines@wellcome.ac.uk.

*For this call we are keen to hear from early career researchers including those that have just completed their PhD, to post-docs, newly appointed fellows/ lecturers and junior group leaders.

Mental health: how much does the UK spend on research?

21 Apr, 2015

Mental health issues affect millions of people in the UK, but comparatively little is spent on research into these conditions. Wellcome Trust funding helped establish the charity MQ, with the aim of supporting much needed research into mental health. Neil Balmer, Head of Communications at MQ, explains the findings of their recent report ‘UK Mental Health Research: MQ Landscape Analysis 2015.’  

The impact of mental health problems on individuals, families, and communities is huge. With 1 in 4 of us affected at some point each year, the issue will touch us all.

Mental health is talked about more than ever before, and is emerging as an important national political issue. We’re also starting to see positive changes in public attitudes, thanks to impressive national campaigns like Time to Change.

However, despite this increased dialogue, we still don’t know enough about mental health – in particular, how we can improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Figures indicate that three-quarters of people with mental illness are currently not in treatment, so it’s clear this is an area that matters.

How much is the UK investing in research to address these issues?  The short answer: not enough.

We carried out a review of the current UK mental health research landscape, including a major six-year analysis of grant activity.

mq2

Our review found that roughly £115 million is spent per year on mental health research. That sounds like a lot of money, but actually it equates to only around £10 per person affected by mental illness. To put that in context, in the field of cancer research, one of the most vibrant fields in all of healthcare, the average spend on research per cancer patient is closer to £1571, over 150 times more.

When you look at what is spent on individual conditions, the situation is even more stark – people affected by the two most common mental disorders, depression and anxiety, have approximately £1.55 and just 21p per person spent researching their respective conditions.

It’s just not enough, and we aim to change this for the better. But first we have to understand why this is. Our report highlights a range of factors contributing to these low levels of funding, not least the issue of stigma. But there’s one fundamental issue – the lack of charitable funding in the sector – and that was the reason that MQ was set up.

In the UK, for every £1 spent by the Government on mental health research, the general public donates just 0.3p. That’s less than half a penny. Compare that to the equivalent charitable donation for cancer: £2.75.

We know that major advances across healthcare are driven by strong charity communities, especially here in the UK.  The sustained streams of charitable funding have been instrumental in delivering improvements in patient care and disease prevention in areas like cancer and heart disease.

That’s not to say there aren’t mental health charities doing extremely valuable work. There is a strong and effective charity sector providing vital advocacy and support, addressing public attitudes, and influencing policy and healthcare practice. It’s all essential work, but the truth is, when it comes to scientific research to learn more about what causes mental illness, and how best to diagnose, treat and prevent it, everyone thinks someone else has got it covered.

Until now, there has never been a major fundraising charity dedicated solely to mental health research. The result is that the general public have never been asked en masse to support research advances in mental health. We want to change that.

MQ was set up to fill this gap and begin to secure unprecedented levels of research investment from the general public. mq

To do this, we are working to demonstrate the value and opportunity that research can bring. We need to communicate that research can be used to raise awareness of conditions, to speed up access to new treatments or interventions, and offer ways to prevent the impact of mental illness on future generations.

Mapping the landscape is an important first step in telling this story. By getting a picture of the state we are in, we can better understand where the gaps are and set out the case for improvements.

At MQ’s recent Annual Science Meeting, Professor Shitij Kapur pointed out that we are at a particularly important ‘turning point’ in the sciences fundamental to mental health. Highlighting the world-leading research infrastructure in the United Kingdom, he echoed Bill Gates in stating, “change can happen”.

At MQ, we’re keeping these messages front and centre in our work as we begin this important journey. We hope you’ll join us.


You can read the full report
UK Mental Health Research: MQ Landscape Analysis 2015 and find out more about JoinMQ on their website.

 

 

 

Wellcome Trust Research Round-up: 20.04.15

20 Apr, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of news from the Wellcome Trust community…

A bright future for the mountain gorilla

4294912776_82d9fd89c8_z

The first project to sequence the whole genomes of mountain gorillas has left scientists feeling more optimistic about the future of this critically endangered species, according to research published in Science.

Scientists have been concerned about the dwindling population of mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountain range on the Rwandan border, where extensive inbreeding and a small genetic pool were thought to make the gorillas susceptible to disease and environmental change.

Using samples collected by the Rwanda Development Board and The Institut Congolese pour la Conservation du Nature Gorilla Doctors, researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute found that although genetic diversity was low, many harmful mutations had been removed. The gorillas were genetically adapted to surviving in small populations and had been doing so for many thousands of years.

“Mountain gorillas are among the most intensively studied primates in the wild, but this is the first in-depth, whole-genome analysis,” says Dr Chris Tyler-Smith from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. “Three years on from sequencing the gorilla reference genome, we can now compare the genomes of all gorilla populations, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and begin to understand their similarities and differences, and the genetic impact of inbreeding.”

It’s not all in the genes

B0007707 Molecular model: DNA

Our genes may not be able to tell us the whole story when it comes to our inherited characteristics, according to Wellcome Trust-funded research. For the first time scientists have identified a role for proteins called histones in our genetic inheritance.

Histones compact our DNA by acting as a spool that it can thread around. They can also control whether a particular gene is switched on or off. Researchers found that naturally occurring changes in these histones – and the effect on genes these changes create – can be passed on to future generations.

Although researchers are unsure about how often this occurs, this discovery offers a new explanation for how some characteristics may be inherited. The study was published in Science.

Professor Robin Allshire, Wellcome Trust Principal Investigator who led the study, said: “We’ve shown without doubt that changes in the histone spools that make up chromosomes can be copied and passed through generations. Our finding settles the idea that inherited traits can be epigenetic, meaning that they are not solely down to changes in a gene’s DNA.”

Destroying prostate cancers’ core weakness

B0009678 Prostate cancer cell, SEM

90% of cancer related deaths are caused when the cancer metastasises, or spreads, around the body. Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute have identified a genetic root of the spread of lethal prostate cancer, a development that could offer new hopes for treatment.

Despite the huge genetic variation of cells within a prostate cancer tumour, scientists found that all cells that spread share a common genetic fault and a common ancestral cell in the prostate. Studying this genetic fault, which is unique to each person, may help scientists develop approaches for personalised medicine.

Ros Eeles, professor of oncogenetics at the Institute of Cancer Research, said: “The common faults we found in each man could potentially offer new targets for treatment. But we found that, once cancer cells have spread, they continue to evolve genetically, so choosing the most effective treatments will remain a key challenge.”

The study was originally published in Nature.

Other Wellcome Trust-funded Research News

Scientists at Imperial College London have identified a new protein that promotes the proliferation of immune cells that can destroy both cancer cells and cells infected with viruses. The Wellcome-funded study has been six years in the making and researchers will now attempt to develop a gene therapy that will boost these cancer-fighting cells.

A study published in Nature Communications explains how the genetic profile of Americans may be more complex than previously thought. Using over 4000 samples from 64 populations across Europe, Africa and the Americas, scientists found a genetic fingerprint of the slave trade, colonisation and previously unknown migration patterns.

In Other News

Two Wellcome Trust funded researchers have been recognised in this year’s Royal Society of Edinburgh awards. Malaria expert Mhairi Stewart, who is based at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology in Glasgow, is awarded the Innovator in Public Engagement prize for creating collaborative activities between science and art. Senior Research Fellow in Biomedical Ethics, Dr Martyn Pickersgill is awarded the RSE/Henry Duncan Medal for his work in medical sociology and commitment to public engagement.

Dr Thomas Kariuki has been appointed as Director of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA). The Kenyan immunologist will head the cross-Africa science funding and agenda setting organisation that aims to boost research autonomy in Africa.

The Allen Institute for Brain Science, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, is leading a new global initiative to advance the digital reconstruction of individual neurons. BigNeuron will test the wide range of neuron-reconstructing techniques that exist to create a standardized protocol for researchers to study neuron morphology and function. As part of the initiative, the Cambridge Algorithm Porting Hackathon, will take place between 4th and 8th May 2015.

Image credits: (From top to bottom) Baby Mountain Gorilla by Braford Dupllsea, via Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND; Molecular model:DNA, Maurizio De Angelis – Wellcome Images; Prostate cancer cell, SEM, Anne Weston – Wellcome Images.

Director’s Update: Fossil fuel investments are a complex issue on which fair-minded people will disagree

15 Apr, 2015

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome TrustThe Wellcome Trust holds some investments in fossil fuel companies, which campaigners are asking us to sell. Jeremy Farrar, our Director, explains in an open letter to our community why this is a complex issue on which people who share environmental goals will often reach different conclusions, and why Wellcome is comfortable with a diversity of opinion.

 

Dear colleagues and friends,

You may well be aware that the Guardian recently launched a campaign urging the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to end investments in fossil fuel companies. While we support the campaign’s ultimate aim of reducing carbon emissions to restrict global warming to 2C, we do not believe this is the strongest contribution we can make to this important goal.

I have explained our view at length in the Guardian and on our website, but in short, it is that we think this issue is more complex than the campaign has allowed, and that there are better ways of maximising our influence as investors. We do this by taking a case-by-case approach that considers individual companies on their merits, including the extent to which they meet their environmental responsibilities.

When we do choose to invest or stay invested (as we have done with 4 of the 200 companies on the campaign’s target list), we then engage actively as shareholders. We use our access to company boards to press for more transparent and sustainable policies that support transition towards a low-carbon economy. We apply this approach both to companies that produce and consume fossil fuels: demand is as important as supply.

We have been asked for evidence of how our engagement has made a difference. This is not as straightforward as it sounds because most of the discussions we have as investors are confidential: we could not expect frankness or access to commercially sensitive information were we to publish details.

It is also rare for discussions with a single shareholder to lead directly and immediately to a clear outcome: our influence works over time, and most powerfully when boards hear similar messages from many shareholders. Divestment would remove a strong voice that takes climate seriously from these coalitions of persuasion, with no likelihood that those to whom we sell our shares would engage the same way. It would not only end our own influence with these companies, but also undermine the influence of other investors who share our views.

One current example in the public domain where this process can be seen at work is in the shareholder resolutions proposed at the forthcoming Shell and BP AGMs, which would require detailed disclosures about their lobbying on climate change, the incentives they offer executives on this issue, and low-carbon investment. We are part of the constellation of investors that has convinced the boards of both companies to recommend these resolutions to other shareholders.

The transparency we are helping to create is not in itself an answer to climate change, but it is a necessary step if not a sufficient one. We have seen no evidence from campaigners that the divestment initiatives that have happened to date have had any comparable influence on any fossil fuel companies. We are being asked to exchange an approach that we know to be effective, if difficult and complex, for another based on conjecture.

I understand that not everyone in the Wellcome Trust’s network will agree with our position. We have thought hard about this issue, beginning long before the present campaign, and are comfortable with the decisions we have reached. But this is an issue on which fair-minded people who share environmental goals are always likely to reach different conclusions. We are also comfortable with this diversity of opinion, and with criticism and challenge, whether those who disagree with us express themselves privately or publicly, and whether they have strong connections with Wellcome or none. We will continue to listen to the full spectrum of views – if you would like to share your view with us, please do email contactus@wellcome.ac.uk.

If you would like to know more about the investments that fund our mission, you can read about them in detail in our most recent Annual Report. Wellcome has also made understanding the connections between environment, nutrition and health one of our five key challenges, and you can read about the work we have started to fund in this emerging field here.

Yours,

Jeremy

 

Where are the academic leaders of the future?

14 Apr, 2015
Participants in the 213-14 Leadership Programme

Participants in the 213-14 Leadership Programme

Traditionally, leadership development has been a concept associated with the corporate world, and one often met with scepticism in academic circles. In recent years the scientific sector has changed, and is becoming an increasingly complex business. Claire Fenton, Project Manager for the Wellcome Trust Research Leadership Development Programme, explains why we need to develop the leadership skills of academic research scientists and what the Wellcome Trust is doing about it…

As I head into St Pancras International to catch my train home in the evening, I continue to be taken aback by the sheer size of the building which has risen from the construction site behind the British Library. The Francis Crick Institute, set to become a world-class research centre and one of the most significant developments in UK biomedical science for a generation, is due to open in London in 2015.

Britain has long been at the forefront of scientific discovery, and existing clusters of scientific excellence, along with initiatives like the Francis Crick Institute place it in a strong position to continue to be so in the future.

Hand-in-hand with investments creating the best physical spaces for research, goes the requirement for scientific leaders who drive innovation and discovery today and tomorrow. How deep is the talent pool of academic visionaries to lead the centres and institutes into the future? And are they well enough equipped for the challenge? Investing in great buildings and research hubs is not enough. We also have to invest in the people who will work in them.

Delegates from the RLDP taking the controls of a BA flight simulator to explore exploring how personal reactions to stress impact on leadership persona.

Delegates from the RLDP taking the controls of a BA flight simulator to explore exploring how personal reactions to stress impact on leadership persona.

The majority of academic scientists entered into a research career because of their curiosity and desire to learn more about their subject of choice. Whilst many hoped that one day they would become a leader in their field, it is rare to find a principal investigator, head of department or institute director who began their scientific career with the dream of being a manager. Rather, their upward trajectory on the career path began as they had an exciting and logical vision for their science.

Leadership has often been interpreted as a decorative word for management, with training courses viewed as a waste of time that could be better spent in the lab.

However, increasing global collaboration, capacity building and advances in knowledge exchange, demand that scientific leaders possess a diverse and adaptable set of skills, which extends well beyond their ideas for their research. Leadership also requires more than just good management skills. An excellent leader should be able to set the agenda and inspire people to share and engage with their vision. They are responsible for enabling everyone underneath them to achieve that vision and fulfil their potential.

Leadership development in the scientific community is essential and the talent pool for research leadership is a global market. For the UK to continue to be internationally competitive in the long-term, we need to not only be able to attract the best, but also to nurture, develop and retain the next generation of research leaders.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Wellcome Trust recognises the importance of good leadership in advancing scientific knowledge, and as a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health, we take our responsibility seriously. That’s why in 2013, along with Monitor Deloitte Europe, we launched the Wellcome Trust Research Leadership Development Programme (RLDP), to address the need for leadership development in the academic sector.

The RLDP aims to develop the skills and capabilities of research leaders in the biomedical science, clinical and public health research communities. The programme explores three key elements of leadership: strategy and vision, managing people and leadership persona.

There is no single formula for what makes a good leader, so rather than being a standard classroom-based programme, participants are taken to diverse, new environments and challenged to investigate leadership excellence outside of research, before exploring how to thrive as a leader in the dynamic research environment.

Supporting and developing the research leaders of the future, and building a network of scientific leaders who can learn from and support each other, has the potential to greatly benefit the scientific community as a whole.

The Wellcome Trust Research Leadership Development Programme (RLDP) runs once a year and is aimed at those already in established leadership positions, or who are considering such a role as their next career move. To date, 24 research leaders have participated, with another 14 taking part in the 2015/16 course. Information regarding the nomination of candidates for the 2016/17 delivery will be sent out to universities later this year.

Researcher Spotlight: Dr Thomas Ezard

13 Apr, 2015

Dr Thomas EzardDr Thomas Ezard is a NERC Advanced Research Fellow and holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator award. Based at the University of Southampton, his research looks at the way events such as wars, outbreaks of disease, and legislation affect the growth of populations. Here he shares his desire to advance the use of evidence-based policy, and tells us how stand-up comedy has helped him when he’s face-to-face with funding committees…

What are you working on?

Two things, mostly: My NERC work investigates how differences among individuals create differences among species (the bridge between micro- and macroevolution).

My Wellcome Trust award asks how disturbance changes human population growth. By disturbance, I mean events like agricultural intensification, wars, pandemics, legislation of a National Health Service and many more besides. Even if they’re very short, these events can leave dynamic signatures that persist far into the future.

The second world war, for instance, left millions dead, but the survivors produced a baby-booming generation that are now at an age where their increased relative abundance poses significant financial, social and moral questions for population health. If human civilisation advances by adapting to events, it probably makes sense for us to get a better handle on how these events change populations.

What does your average day involve?

At the minute, each day typically starts by despairing at the often-witless coverage of the opinion polls for the general election!

Most of my days are spent meeting students to talk about their particular projects, or trying statistical or mathematical models for new ideas I’m just starting to try to think about. As I’m based across two campuses, some time is spent cycling the six kilometres between sites. Although less fun in winter, the cycling is a welcome break from staring at computer screens and gives me time and fresh air to think.

Why is your work important?

Exard NHM

Backstage at the Natural History Museum

It’s important because we have the opportunity to make decisions using a robust evidence base, rather than the whims of individuals. I despise a “this is how we’ve always done it, so this is how we’ll do it again” attitude. My Wellcome Trust project isn’t really the ‘Big Data’ cliché – medium data, perhaps. Moving from providing an evidence base to the actual changing of attitudes is a pretty substantial step though.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I’m really excited about working with the public policy team at Southampton to try to convert the mathematical models into something that improves how we plan places where people live.

I can’t wait to see how exceptional, in terms of sheer numbers, the baby boomers are compared to other cohorts responding to other disturbances.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

Chatting with Stuart Townley about what the demographic consequences of the menopause might be, rather than what we were supposed to be concentrating on (epigenetic inheritance).

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

The Trust has enabled me to recruit a team of researchers working on different aspects of the same problem. As I’m at the start of my career as a Principal Investigator, a number of my PhD students are doing quite opportunistic projects in very different areas. Being able to design roles that complement each other and working with smart people in those positions means our progress meetings are genuinely interesting.

The support from the Trust has also helped take my work in a new direction – I first started thinking about these models as a tool to aid the conservation of threatened species. Whatever humans are, we are not critically endangered.

Image courtesy of Lookcatalog on Flickr - CC-BY

Image courtesy of Lookcatalog on Flickr – CC-BY

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

It’s not really a question, but I often hear variants on the “I don’t like maths/equations/statistics” theme. The perception that biology is not a rigorous quantitative science is suboptimal.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

When someone has worked for most of their whole career on a single system and wants to know why my models don’t predict it perfectly. The “why” part is because the follow-up is always, always, a “but you haven’t included X, so of course it doesn’t.”

I’m very much of the “all models are wrong, but some are useful” school of thought: I’m not trying to understand your particular system, I’m trying to benchmark changes across lots of systems, all with their own peculiarities.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I shared an office with Ellen Dowell, who is a brilliant creative producer of science engagement. Ellen “persuaded” me to do research-based stand-up comedy. I tried to convert one of my papers into a stand-up comedy set. The experience was terrifying, but terrifyingly brilliant. It’s also been excellent preparation for keeping it together while pitching projects to funding committees.

What keeps you awake at night?

T6233240407_81131e202c_zoo much blue light from faffing about with statistics on my computer.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Mr Lawrence (my GCSE maths teacher) told me that if I didn’t know what I wanted to do, keep doing maths.

The chain-reaction question, posed by previous spotlightee Dr Julija Kripic is this: When would you advise a person to pursue PhD or a scientific career in general? To put it differently, what does it take to be a scientist?

When interviewing prospective PhD students, I’m looking for a spark of creativity and a different way of thinking about a problem. I’m not interested in whether the person has a 1st class degree or 97% on the ecological modelling module, but how they pose questions. Science should be more about constructive questioning and criticism, not a “this is it” doctrine.

To find out more about Thomas Ezard and his research, you can follow him on Twitter and visit his profile on the University of Southampton website.

Image credits: Provided by author; NHM image thanks to Marina Rillo; Crowd image by Lookcatalog on Flickr, CC-BY; Implicit heart curve, by Duncan Hull – via Flickr – CC-BY

 

Image of the Week: Endangered Mountain Gorilla

10 Apr, 2015
Nyanjura near its mother. Image courtesy of Gorilla Doctors.

Nyanjura near its mother. Image courtesy of Gorilla Doctors.

Our image of the week this week is of a young gorilla called Nyanjura, part of a small population of mountain gorillas from the Virunga volcanic mountain range in Africa. In 1981 the population size had been drastically reduced to around 253 as a result of hunting and the destruction of their habitat.

There were concerns that such a small group would have a limited gene-pool, and thus be vulnerable to disease or changes in the environment, but the latest research shows that inbreeding has, in some ways, been genetically beneficial to the group.

Despite mountain gorillas being one of the most intensively studied species in the wild, this is the first time an in-depth, whole-genome analysis of mountain gorillas has been possible.

The research was conducted by scientists from a range of centres, including the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, home to Dr Chris Tyler-Smith, one of the authors of the study. “Three years on from sequencing the gorilla reference genome, we can now compare the genomes of all gorilla populations, including the critically endangered mountain gorilla, and begin to understand their similarities and differences, and the genetic impact of inbreeding” he says.

Their research found fewer harmful loss-of-function gene variants in the small mountain gorilla population than in larger western gorilla populations. These variants stop genes from working and can cause serious, often fatal, health conditions.

“This new understanding of genetic diversity and demographic history among gorilla populations provides us with valuable insight into how apes and humans, their closely related cousins, adapt genetically to living in small populations,” says Dr Aylwyn Scally, corresponding author from the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. “In these data we can observe the process by which genomes are purged of severely deleterious mutations by a small population size.”

Since the early 1980s, the Virunga population has grown to approximately 480, thanks to conservation efforts led by the Rwanda Development Board and Gorilla Doctors, but they are still critically endangered.

It is hoped that the genome-wide map of genetic differences between populations will enable scientists to identify the origins of gorillas that have been illegally captured or killed. This will mean that more gorillas can be returned to the wild and will make it easier to bring prosecutions against those who poach gorillas for souvenirs and bush meat.

You can read the full paper: Mountain gorilla genomes reveal the impact of long-term population decline and inbreeding, in the latest issue of Science. You can find out more about the work of the Gorilla Doctors on their website.

Image credit: Gorilla Doctors, used with permission.

Sharing Research Data to Improve Public Health

8 Apr, 2015

venn

An international workshop recently held in Stellenbosch, South Africa explored the opportunities and challenges for enabling greater access to (and use of) data generated by public health and epidemiological research in Africa. David Carr, Policy Adviser at the Wellcome Trust, describes some of the key themes that emerged from the productive and lively discussions…

Over recent years, there has been a growing consensus that many of the increasingly rich and complex datasets being generated from health research represent a vast untapped resource. Making data more readily available to researchers and other users enables the data to be used in new and innovative ways, helping to maximise the benefits to health, and improving the efficiency of the research enterprise.

Research funders (including the Wellcome Trust) have responded by introducing policies requiring that data generated by their funded research are made available for access and re-use with as few restrictions as possible. However putting this into practice is far from straightforward, and particular challenges exist in relation to public health and epidemiology research data collected by researchers in low- and middle-income country (LMIC) settings. There are very real fears that the value of data to both the researchers that collect it, and to the populations in the countries concerned, will be threatened if is made rapidly available to better-resourced groups elsewhere in the world.

browser-98386_1280In 2011, more than 20 global health research funders came together to establish the Public Health Research Data Forum – committing to work together to increase the availability of public health and epidemiology research data in ways that are equitable, ethical and efficient, and that will accelerate improvements in public health.

Last week’s workshop in Stellenbosch was a major landmark in the Forum’s work: bringing together around 65 health researchers and other stakeholders from across Africa, with selected international experts, to take stock of the work undertaken by the Forum and to help shape its future direction.

From the outset of the workshop, there was clear consensus around the benefits that could be derived from sharing data, and a strong willingness from all participants to engage in and explore ways in which sharing could be enhanced.

In the course of the meeting, speakers from several major collaborative initiatives and networks – including the INDEPTH and ALPHA networks, H3 Africa and WWARN (the Worldwide Antimalarial Research Network) – described how effective platforms for data sharing had been established which were benefiting researchers across Africa and beyond. It was clear, however, that there was a good deal more nervousness when it came to making data available outside of established collaborations. Here, there was felt to be a critical need to establish fair conditions of use, and mechanisms to ensure that the contribution of those generating the data was properly recognised.

Three further key messages emerged strongly from the workshop. The first was the critical importance of activities to develop capacity and skills in data management, curation and analysis in LMICs and the need to consider how capacity building can be resourced through research funding, and in the context of data sharing agreements.

Secondly, the importance of building and maintaining trust and confidence among all stakeholder groups concerned – including researchers, institutions, ethical review boards and research participants – as a basis for effective data sharing cannot be overstated.

Delegates discussed emerging findings from a major research study funded by the Wellcome Trust on behalf of the Forum, which has explored the views and expectations of key research stakeholders across five LMICs – an area which hitherto has been lacking an evidence base. The study will be published in July, together with an online toolkit to help support future engagement activities in different settings.

Thirdly, there was very strong agreement that data sharing needed to be considered as an integral part of the research cycle, and incentive structures developed to help ensure this occurs. The costs and benefits of sharing data, and the resources and skills required, must be factored in from the earliest planning and design stages of research, not just added in as an afterthought.

5630805545_126360cf20_z

Image courtesy of: Dominik Bartsch on Flickr. CC-BY.

Catherine Kyobutungi of the African Population and Health Research Centre likened this need for a holistic perspective to ‘finding the hippo’: identifying the creature as whole, rather than just the part above the waterline – an analogy which captured the imagination of the group and became the catchphrase for the workshop!

In the final session, delegates discussed a new Forum report, published to coincide with the workshop, which explores the benefits and challenges of data linkage in public health research in both high-income and LMIC settings. There was strong support for the report’s key findings, which include the need to shift the tone of the policy discourse on data sharing from “default closed” to “default open”, and the need to create resources and case studies to aid researchers making the case to link data.

The rich discussions at the workshop will play a vital role in shaping the next phase of the Forum’s work, as we look at how we can best work together and with the research community to support data sharing in a manner that is sensitive to different contexts. The Wellcome Trust will continue to play a leading role in this work.

The meeting was also successful in bringing new voices from Africa into this discussion: building upon, and further expanding, this engagement and dialogue will be a key priority for the Forum. A report of the workshop will be developed by the US National Academy of Sciences over the coming weeks. We hope that this will be used by workshop delegates (and others) to spark further discussion and debate across Africa and globally.

Further information about the work of the Public Health Research Data Forum is available on our website. A webinar to discuss the findings of the new Forum report on data linkage will be held on Monday, 13th April at 12:00 to 13:30 BST, please click here to register.

ProMED: An Early Warning System for Emerging Diseases

7 Apr, 2015

promed

banner_7

The fast and effective communication of reliable information is vital during outbreaks such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Combating infectious disease is one of the Trust’s five focus areas, which is why we are pleased to award five-years of funding to ensure ProMED emails from the International Society of Infectious Disease remain free of charge to users. ProMED Editor Larry Madoff explains the importance of this early-warning system…

This morning I received this e-mail and then searched your archives and found nothing that pertained to it. Does anyone know anything about this problem?

“Have you heard of an epidemic in Guangzhou? An acquaintance of mine from a teacher’s chat room lives there and reports that the hospitals there have been closed and people are dying.”

– from a ProMED report 10th February 2003

If you are a public health professional, odds are you first heard about the newly discovered SARS epidemic from ProMED-mail. ProMED (the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases) recently marked its 20th anniversary serving as an early warning system for emerging diseases and outbreaks around the world. ProMED pioneered the use of nontraditional sources – such as media accounts or firsthand clinician reports – for disease surveillance. It also made early use of the internet for collecting and distributing public health information.

ProMED healthmapMore recently, the public health world learned of outbreaks of avian influenza, Ebola, MERS coronavirus, Chikungunya, cholera, measles and many other threats from ProMED. Its readers received reports and daily updates on ongoing outbreaks 365 days per year.

A program of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, ProMED is available to all, free of political constraints and currently counts more than 70,000 participants representing every country on the planet. In addition to its main global service, ProMED’s regional networks serve both Francophone and Anglophone Africa and provide Spanish and Portuguese language services in Latin America. New networks have been developed for the Middle East and South Asia. These regional ProMED networks help improve disease surveillance in areas that are often hotspots for disease emergence, but are poorly served by traditional public health systems.

ProMEpromedlogo_trans3D offers reports with expert commentary via email, web and social media. It has a staff of 50 located in over 30 countries and provides all of its services free of charge. Since its inception, ProMED has endorsed a “One Health” or ecological approach to understanding disease emergence recognizing that human health depends on the health of other species, both plant and animal. ProMED encourages dialogue among a diverse global health community, promoting communication among its readers.

Through its recognition of ProMED as a public good, the Wellcome Trust is helping to sustain ProMED’s essential mission while allowing for technical enhancements and research initiatives that will improve detection and allow for mitigation of infectious disease threats.

To access reports, or sign up for a free subscription, go to ProMED-mail’s website.

Image of the Week: Easter Bunnies

3 Apr, 2015

V0046794 Sketched of Rabbits

With the Easter break upon us we’re full of the joys of spring – and what better way to put a spring in your step but with some bunnies?

Our image of the week is from the Wellcome Images archive and is a 19th century Japanese sketch of some rabbits. The origin of the Easter bunny is not entirely clear, with some believing it stems from the pagan celebration of the spring goddess Eostre whose animal symbol was a rabbit. Others link it to the German tradition of Osterhase – “Easter Hare” – who judged whether children had been good and delivered baskets of coloured eggs the night before Easter.

Whatever you believe, we wish you a nice break, and will see you next week. If you’re looking for something to keep you (or your children!) busy, check out our April events listing or print yourself a free copy of the antique Game of the Golden Goose that we featured last year.

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. Over 100,000 high resolution images from our historical collections are now free to use under the Creative Commons-Attribution only (CC-BY) licence.

Rolling back malaria: A journey through space and time

31 Mar, 2015
©Access to Understanding, Design Serial/Trash

©Access to Understanding, Design Serial/Trash

On Friday the winners of the Access to Understanding competition were announced at an event celebrating communication of scientific research. Aimed at PhD students and early-career postdoctoral researchers, the competition challenged entrants to take a cutting-edge research paper and explain it to a non-specialist audience, covering what the research entailed and why it of importance. Philippa MatthewsThis year’s winner, Philippa Matthews, is from the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research, at the University of Oxford. Her winning entry summarises a paper on the risk of malaria infection in Africa, conducted by researchers at the Kemri Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya. We would like to extend our congratulations to Philippa, and share her winning article with you…

Plasmodium falciparum is the most deadly of all malaria parasites. Children are particularly vulnerable to the devastating consequences of this infection: the World Health Organisation estimates that a child in Africa dies from malaria every minute. In recognition of this crisis, malaria has become a headline priority for global health, with campaigns such as ‘Roll Back Malaria’ spearheading a huge international effort to tackle the disease.

Noor and colleagues set out to assess how much progress has been made across Africa in the ‘Roll Back Malaria’ era. Have the immense resources deployed made a real difference to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations? How has the burden of malaria altered in the decade since 2000? And can we identify whether infection risks have changed by country or region? With these questions in mind, this research team developed a sophisticated analytical method to measure, as precisely as possible, changing patterns of malaria risk in Africa.

The symptoms of malaria can mimic those of many other infections, and suspected cases of malaria are often treated without a certain diagnosis and without attending a hospital or clinic. For these reasons, trying to get a clear picture of the scale of the malaria problem in Africa is a major challenge. Noor’s team chose to measure malaria by the most accurate method available, by looking for studies that had actually identified Plasmodium falciparum parasites in the blood of study participants in the community. Their final analysis draws on data collected from 3.5 million individuals represented in over 26,000 surveys spanning 49 regions of Africa, with each piece of information linked to its precise geographic origin by satellite technology.

The researchers fed this vast mine of data into a carefully constructed computational analysis. Each piece of information was adjusted to account for exactly when and where it was collected, and to apply it to a particular age group of interest – the highly vulnerable population of children aged 2-10 years. They also factored in a host of complex influences on malaria transmission, such as urbanisation and climate. The final output was a measure of malaria risk for each individual square kilometre of Africa, first in 2000 and then again a decade later. Each of these tiny squares was classified into one of eight different malaria risk categories.

Malaria prevalence in Africa, 2000-2010

From this sophisticated analysis, Noor’s team report several substantial and encouraging improvements in the patterns of malaria in Africa. Strikingly, they calculated that 217 million people in Africa were living in a lower risk area in 2010 than they did in 2000, as well as finding an overall reduction in malaria transmission in 40 of the 44 African countries that they assessed in detail. Four territories, South Africa, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Cape Verde, successfully reduced malaria into the lowest risk category by 2010. By this time, the majority of the transmission in the highest risk category was occurring in just ten countries.

Noor’s study also sounds several important notes of caution. A population explosion in Africa has contributed hugely to the total numbers of people at risk of malaria; over 50% the continent’s total population still live in regions of substantial risk. Soberingly, this effect of population growth somewhat dilutes other gains that have been made in reducing malaria risk. Rates of infection in certain countries remained unchanged or even climbed between 2000 and 2010: Malawi and South Sudan are highlighted as areas for increasing concern, and high transmission has continued across many parts of Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The researchers also highlight some areas of difficulty. Despite a data collection effort that spanned eight years, they were still unable to identify enough information to assess the malaria risk for certain regions of Africa. And of course the vastly complex nature of malaria transmission cannot be completely captured or measured by a computer-based method.

Overall, however, the results of this meticulous analysis provide valuable feedback for improving population health in many parts of Africa. As well as amassing all possible information about malaria parasite distribution, the study team also thought hard about the impact of the rapidly changing social and geographical landscape of Africa, ranging from urbanisation to rainfall. Their detailed mapping of malaria patterns highlights how the risks of an infection can wax and wane, reminding us that the ‘Roll Back Malaria’ campaign and its allies need to be constantly re-assessing the best way to keep pace with changing patterns of disease. The authors conclude with cautious optimism about the progress made since 2000, but provide a timely warning that the challenge of malaria is far from over.

This article describes the research published in the Lancet in 2014 paper entitled: The changing risk of Plasmodium falciparum malaria infection in Africa: 2000-10: a spatial and temporal analysis of transmission intensity.

The Access to Understanding competition is run by Europe PubMed Central and the British Library. You can find out more about the competition and read the other entries on the Access to Understanding website.

Image credits: Rolling back malaria – ©Access to Understanding, Design Serial/Trash; Philippa Matthews – c/o author; Africa maps – image courtesy of paper authors, Noor et al.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 73,944 other followers

%d bloggers like this: