NSF-funded institute at Georgetown University aims to advance research around viral emergence

The National Science Foundation has awarded Georgetown University $12.5 million to lead a global team of scientists in establishing a collaborative institute designed to advance research and education around viral emergence -- the process of viruses jumping from animals to humans.

The Verena (Viral Emergence Research Initiative) Biology Integration Institute, based at Georgetown's Center for Global Health Science and Security, aims to advance a cross-disciplinary research agenda that targets significant sources of emerging infectious diseases. The collaboration will also train scientists at all career stages in the science of the host-virus network, as well as core scientific skills in data fluency and boundary spanning, creating the next generation of viral emergence-focused researchers.

The days of 'quiet periods' between epidemics are over - from this point on, we're headed from Covid-19 straight into monkeypox, into the next public health crisis. Our goal is to build the data and tools we need to know what's coming tomorrow–and maybe, actually, be ready next time."

Georgetown assistant professor Colin Carlson, PhD, director of the Institute and co-founder of Verena

Carlson and four additional co-investigators will lead the institute's theme-related work streams including:

  • Carlson - "Transmission and the emergence of ecological dynamics;"
  • Daniel Becker, PhD, University of Oklahoma - "The coevolution of host immunity and the global virome;"
  • Stephanie Seifert, PhD, Washington State University - " Host and virus-omics and the rules of compatibility;" and,
  • Sadie Ryan, PhD, University of Florida - "Global change and the emergence of new host-virus interactions."

Cynthia Wei, PhD, an associate teaching professor in Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service, will serve as the institute's lead on training and education. The institute also includes 9 additional senior researchers.

Over the first five years, the NSF-funded Institute will provide new insights into the evolution of bats' unique immune systems, and-;with additional exploratory work on mosquito vectors of disease-;will lay the foundation to apply innovative methods across the vertebrate and invertebrate global virome. In addition, the predictive work undertaken by the team will spark broad advances in machine learning and computational biology. The open data infrastructure being developed-;including a universal, public database for wildlife disease surveillance-;will broaden the horizons of quantitative work in disease ecology at large.

"We started developing our approach six months before the pandemic started: we build datasets, run experiments, and apply artificial intelligence all in concert to understand the rules of cross-species transmission," Carlson explains. "Three years in, we're thrilled at the chance to scale up and tackle even harder problems-;and hopefully start to make real impacts in global health and conservation."

Training scientists in the cross-disciplinary methods used by the team will also be a significant part of the overall project, with more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students being trained in the first five years.

"Students will have chances to connect with and learn from a sharp, diverse, and vibrant group of researchers, as well as unique opportunities to engage in Verena research," says Georgetown's Wei, the training and education lead. "These experiences will provide an exciting window into the process of collaborative, interdisciplinary, and actionable science. They will also provide a chance for students to be a part of cutting-edge discoveries on viral emergence."

These training opportunities add to Georgetown's already-extensive work in pandemic prevention and preparedness, including the Center for Global Health Science & Security's (GHSS) work in this space.

"This is an incredibly exciting award and we anticipate the work will be transformative to the entire field," says GHSS director Rebecca Katz, PhD, who also serves as chair of Verena's Science-Policy Advisory Board.

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