Until a few months ago, Ebola haemorrhagic fever was a tropical disease that we didn’t hear much about. Now it fills our daily news headlines, threatening to edge ever closer. According to the World Health Organisation, (WHO) the current outbreak in West Africa is the largest and most complex outbreak since the virus was first discovered in 1976.
Edinburgh may seem a long way away from these events, but as a centre of world-class research in infectious diseases, our scientists are at the thick of it. For example, The Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh has a long history of research into many different diseases including HIV, malaria, influenza, SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome virus and now Ebola virus. It is here that one of our researchers – Gytis Dudas – has been involved helping to analyse the genome sequences of viruses from the current outbreak. Gytis is a PhD student in the lab of Professor Andrew Rambaut, an international expert in the evolution of infectious diseases.
Working with researchers from Harvard University, the Broad Institute (a biomedical and genomic research centre based in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and colleagues in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Gytis helped to analyse 99 Ebola virus genomes from 78 patients in Sierra Leone.
Using phylogenetics – the study of how organisms are related – the aim was to answer two main questions: where the virus came from, and how the outbreaks in Sierra Leone and Guinea are related.
We now know that the Ebola virus in West Africa arrived there from Central Africa sometime in the last decade, and made a single species jump from an animal – probably a bat – to a human. It was this species jump in Guinea that started the current spread from person-to-person, crossing into Sierra Leone in May 2014. The new research also showed that all the epidemics in the past have descended from a strain very similar to the one that caused the very first Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo 38 years ago.
The results of this research have been published in the journal Science and offer a vital insight into a disease that we understand very little about. We know practically nothing about what the virus is doing amongst the animal population, so every Ebola outbreak offers a costly glimpse into how it is evolving.
The reality is that no one scientist or institution can tackle an epidemic of this scale. It is the cumulative efforts of many collaborators that can make a difference. This includes the healthcare workers on the ground, who play a vital part in bringing outbreaks like this under control, often at a personal cost.
In terms of collaboration among scientists, Edinburgh’s role is hugely powerful. The Institute of Evolutionary Biology is a member of Edinburgh Infectious Diseases, which brings together over 150 principal investigators (lead scientists) and over 760 active researchers across the spectrum of infectious disease science and clinical medicine in Edinburgh.
This network, which is hosted by The University of Edinburgh, represents no fewer than 26 institutions and centres of expertise, including NHS Lothian’s Department for Infectious Diseases at the Western General Hospital, Heriot Watt University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering; The Moredun Research Institute at the Pentland Science Park and The Roslin Institute at Easter Bush, the world leading animal health research institute.
In turn, this critical mass of scientific and clinical expertise – one of the largest of its kind in the UK – is represented by Edinburgh Science Triangle, a collaboration of seven science parks, four universities and two agritech institutes that forms one of the top ten research and development locations in Europe. This world-class science and technology cluster is home to more than 3,000 researchers and 120 market-leading companies working across disciplines including stem cell research, genetics, animal disease, nanotechnology and informatics. Such is the scale of this super-campus that it ranks amongst the 20 largest science parks in the world.
Underpinning these international credentials is a long legacy of scientific breakthroughs, particularly in medicine. They include the development in 1978 of the vaccine for Hepatitis B, an infectious disease of the liver that kills 780,000 people a year.
It is hugely inspirational to be part of such a community that is making a difference to people’s lives.
• Hilary Snaith is executive manager of Edinburgh Infectious Diseases at the University of Edinburgh www.edinburghsciencetriangle.com