Computers to combat disease

A new initiative harnesses the USA's computing skill to enhance our ability to respond to disease epidemics and bioterrorism. The initiative, called MIDAS, will develop powerful computer modeling techniques to analyze and respond to infectious disease outbreaks, whether they occur naturally, such as SARS, or are released intentionally in a bioterrorist attack. MIDAS (an acronym for Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study) is sponsored by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that has a strong interest in bioinformatics and computational biology. 
NIGMS recently awarded the first four grants in this new initiative, totaling more than $28 million over five years. Three of these grants will support the creation of mathematical models to study various aspects of infectious disease epidemics and community responses. These research grants together total $9.5 million over five years (averaging more than $640,000 per grant for the first year). A fourth award, totaling $18.8 million over five years ($3 million for the first year), funds researchers to develop a central database to organize information from the other three groups. It also supports the development of user-friendly computer modeling tools for the broader scientific community, policy makers and public health officials to use to simulate epidemics and response strategies.
"MIDAS will play a key role in the NIH biodefense plan," said Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., NIH director. "The computer models created through this initiative will help us determine the best strategies to detect, control and prevent the spread of disease."
MIDAS will bring together interdisciplinary teams of scientists with expertise ranging from mathematics and computer science to epidemiology, genetics, and public health.  The network of MIDAS scientists will be guided by a steering committee of investigators with broad expertise in modeling, infectious diseases and public health. This committee will establish policies for the network, set standards for data management, evaluate progress and provide a forum for the exchange of ideas within and beyond the MIDAS network. 
"MIDAS is designed not only to help prepare us for infectious disease crises, but also to be an active part of the response," said Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., NIGMS director. "In the case of a national medical emergency, MIDAS scientists can redirect their work to help government officials quickly determine the best way to deal with the epidemic."
"The modeling tools will also advance our ability to study complex systems with many interacting parts, which is essential to truly understand biological processes," he added.
The awards have been made to:
  • A collaboration of scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (lead), the Brookings Institution, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the University of Maryland and Imperial College (London). This research group will create highly visual, user-friendly computational analyses of disease outbreaks. These models will use historic and modern data about epidemics and incorporate factors such as disease incubation period, transmission rate, weather patterns, peoples’ individual susceptibility and social networks. The researchers will then introduce and evaluate the effectiveness of containment methods like vaccination, contact tracing and quarantine. They will initially focus on smallpox, dengue fever and West Nile virus, then will apply their model to study other infectious agents. (Donald Burke, M.D., principal investigator)
  • A group of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This research group will explore the effects of social networks in hypothetical urban areas (population 1.5 million) on the spread and possible containment of multiple, interacting disease-causing organisms. The scientists will model how social contacts might change in response to an outbreak or to intervention strategies. They will modify the social networks and populations to simulate epidemics in a variety of hypothetical cities. (Stephen Eubank, Ph.D., principal investigator)
  • A research team at Emory University. This research group will model a disease outbreak in hypothetical American communities (population sizes 2,000 to 48,000) to find the best method(s) of controlling the epidemic. The researchers will examine the effectiveness of policies including surveillance and containment, vaccination, medical treatment and the closing of key institutions. They will adapt their model for smallpox, SARS, pandemic influenza and other possible bioterrorism agents or naturally occurring diseases. They will also investigate how certain microorganisms cause disease within individual people and then spread through a population. (Ira Longini, Ph.D., principal investigator)
  • An informatics group spearheaded by Research Triangle Institute International. This team includes members with diverse expertise from SAS Institute, Inc., IBM and Duke and Emory universities. The group will provide the scientific community, policy makers and medical personnel with a wide array of computational and analytic tools and data sources tailor-made to model emerging infectious diseases and public health responses. (Diane Wagener, Ph.D., principal investigator)

More information about MIDAS and other NIGMS-supported efforts to model infectious diseases is available at

NIGMS supports basic biomedical research that lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. For NIGMS news releases, science education booklets and other materials, visit NIGMS is part of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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