Scientists awarded prestigious Scialog grants supporting new research to detect, mitigate emerging animal-borne infectious diseases

Collage of animals and people

Zoonotic diseases—caused by germs that spread between animals and people—are common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals—for example, scientists believe the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, originated in bats, as did the coronaviruses behind MERS and SARS. Having the capability to rapidly detect and understand emerging pathogens is critical to developing new vaccines and other countermeasures.

In the first year of the Scialog: Mitigating Zoonotic Threats initiative the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have awarded a total of $1.25 million to 20 early-career scientists from throughout the country, including associate professor Crystal Hepp of Northern Arizona University’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, and assistant professor Jason Ladner of NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Scialog—which is short for “science + dialog”—supports research by stimulating intensive interdisciplinary conversation and building a community of early career scientists around a scientific theme of global importance. The Mitigating Zoonotic Threats initiative is focused on the detection and mitigation of emerging animal-borne infectious diseases.

Jason Ladner in lab
Jason Ladner

“Developing research partnerships between USDA and academic scientists is a specific part of ARS’ mission,” said Jeff Silverstein, deputy administrator, USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). “We want to capture new perspectives and create long-term networks for improving surveillance, preparation and countermeasure development to mitigate zoonotic disease.”

Each of the individual awards is $50,000. As a member of two team projects, “Enabling Comprehensive Immunoprofiling in Animals through a Combination of Xenosurveillance and Highly-multiplexed Serology” and “Zoonotic Implications of Host Genetics, Immunity, and Virome in Bats,” Ladner, a biologist, will receive two awards.

“Through participation in this program, I’ve formed two exciting new collaborations, both of which are facilitating new applications for a serological approach I’ve been developing at NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute,” Ladner said. “Specifically, I’ll be applying our PepSeq platform for highly-multiplexed serology to disease surveillance within captive and wild animal populations. By measuring antibody reactivity to hundreds of thousands of peptides, this technology will provide a broad view of the different viruses infecting these animals, which serve as important reservoirs and conduits for viruses that may emerge in humans.

“I’m really excited to explore the potential for this technology, which has thus far only been used in humans, for better understanding viral diversity in animals and therefore, helping us prepare for viruses that may emerge in humans.”

Crystal Hepp
Crystal Hepp

Hepp, whose work focuses heavily on genomic epidemiology, has been awarded as a member on the project, “Estimating Aedes aegypti Spillover Potential and Evaluation of Current Mitigation Strategies.” She and Silvie Huijben at ASU, another co-PI on the grant, have been trying to work on an arbovirus-related project for a while but hadn’t been able to find the time to plan that project.

“This Scialog initiative provided the time and space we needed to effectively collaborate and to find our missing piece: Kezia Manlove, an infectious disease and contact network modeler at Utah State University,” she said. “Knowing that Aedes aegypti is prevalent in Arizona and that this vector has the capacity to transmit several arboviruses of pandemic potential, our team is dedicated to identifying locations in Arizona that are at highest risk for spillover events and the mitigation efforts that are most likely to be effective.

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, her team is always looking ahead.

“We are always waiting for the next pandemic to happen and then implementing responses reactively,” she said. “This project is about being proactive by implementing additional layers of flavivirus-agnostic surveillance and evaluating the most effective tools to respond immediately.”

Top image is courtesy of USDA.

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Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research

NAU Communications