Global Health Press

‘Critical mass’ of scientists launches Institute to tackle infectious diseases

Imperial College London launched a pioneering new Institute to tackle some of the biggest challenges in infectious disease.

The new Institute of Infection brings together one of the largest critical masses of researchers working across infectious disease, anywhere in the world.

Building on the College’s global research expertise, the Institute will unite scientists from medicine and life sciences with mathematicians, engineers, physicists and a range of other fields to work together in new ways, harnessing their combined expertise to tackle emerging and longstanding issues in infectious disease.

Tackling challenges

The aim of the Institute is to address some of the biggest unanswered questions in the field of infectious disease, such as how is climate change impacting the spread of diseases transmitted by flies and mosquitoes, how can gene-editing technologies help to reduce the spread of disease (such as Dengue and Zika), and how can animal vaccination programmes help to curb diseases which also affect humans.

Professor Charles Bangham, from Imperial’s Department of Infectious Disease and co-director of the Institute of Infection, said: “Our new Institute will draw on Imperial’s vast strengths across engineering, natural sciences, business and medicine like never before. We have been planning the Institute for many years to tackle existing as well as emerging infectious disease threats: the global pandemic gives us a strong reminder of the need to work together on these challenges, and gives the launch an extra urgency.

“We hope it will encourage new opportunities, ideas and research projects where these disciplines combine, working with the College’s extensive network of collaborators in the UK and around the world.”

The Institute builds on Imperial’s proud history of infection research and innovation, from Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin at St Mary’s Hospital in 1928, to the College’s pioneering work to combat the COVID-19 pandemic through epidemiological modelling, diagnostics, novel vaccine technology, drug trials, and more.

Combining expertise

Biomedical, clinical and broader researchers with an interest in infection are proactively being brought together with engineers and natural, climate, and economic scientists, combining varied expertise to tackle the challenges posed by infection in new and innovative ways – with interdisciplinarity at its core.

It will see scientists working on every class of organism that cause infections, including: viruses like influenza and HIV; bacteria that cause tuberculosis, food poisoning and typhoid; fungi such as Aspergillus (black mould); and protozoa such as the parasites which cause malaria and ‘sleeping sickness’.

Professor Jake Baum, from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences and co-director of the Institute of Infection, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has really brought home how much damage and suffering infectious diseases can cause and it’s also shown what scientists can achieve when we work together towards common goals.

“But while much of the focus has been on emerging infectious threats, the world still needs us to find better ways of tackling existing infectious diseases that continue to take a huge toll, like malaria and HIV, as well as broader issues like antimicrobial resistance (AMR). As has been done so successfully during the pandemic, we can bring together researchers from across different disciplines and devote the same kind of collective brainpower to finding new ways of preventing and treating infectious diseases.”

Examples of interdisciplinary approaches to infectious disease at Imperial to date, include:

Tackling malaria:

  • Using gene drive technology to wipe out populations of mosquitoes in the laboratory, reducing the spread of disease.
  • Creating simple, portable and inexpensive diagnostic technology for malaria that analyses blood samples quickly to obtain precise information such as the type of malaria parasite present. This work brings together electronic engineers, public health, infectious disease and life sciences researchers.

Zoonotic disease:

  • Imperial public health researchers have worked with the University of Glasgow and the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania to show how a coordinated and sustained programme of dog vaccination is essential for preventing the spread of rabies to humans and other animals.

COVID-19:

  • The REACT studies have seen virologists, epidemiologists and public health experts work with the NHS and Government to provide accurate snapshots of COVID-19 infection rates and trends in the UK.
  • Bioengineers and medics working together to design a low-cost, high-performance emergency ventilator to help patients with COVID-19. The team made the design freely available to manufacturers and health services around the world, during a global shortage of the equipment.

Professor Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London, said: “The pandemic has brought to the fore the scale of the challenges we face in tackling infectious diseases. It has highlighted the importance of bringing scientists from different fields together in new ways. We’ve seen epidemiologists modelling outcomes, virologists understanding how the virus causes disease, and engineers improving ventilator designs or stabilising RNA molecules so they can be used in vaccines. This new Institute will provide a blueprint for much more of this critical collaborative research, and will be a model for future revolutions in the way we understand, treat and prevent infectious disease.”

The Institute of Infection is one of five cross-College projects to be launched as part of Imperial’s new Academic Strategy, which sets out a vision for Imperial as a place for authoritative thinking, world-leading teaching, and creative research ideas.

Professor Ian Walmsley, Provost of Imperial College London, said: “We put collaboration and working across disciplines at the heart of our Academic Strategy, understanding that the big scientific questions and the major societal challenges of our time require us to work together. The Institute of Infection embodies that vision – creating a world-leading academic community united by a common goal. Our collective strengths – spanning fundamental research, clinical science, medical innovation and healthcare policy – will transform the world’s ability to respond to infection threats.”

The College plans to reach out for major philanthropic support to underpin the new Institute of Infection.

Source: Imperial College London

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