Newswise — A global partnership has set its sights on nothing less than making malaria — an implacable enemy that predates the human race — nothing more than a bad memory. VECNet, the Vector Ecology and Control Network, aims to get there by combining and supporting the ingenuity of researchers, engineers, public health officials, national decision makers and funding agencies.
The idea is to create a computer model that allows malaria-battling stakeholders to join efforts.
“VECNet is about bringing order out of chaos,” says Tom Burkot, VECNet’s principal investigator and professor and tropical leader at James Cook University, Australia. “The challenge we have is that we’re trying to control and eliminate malaria in a world in which, for example, there are 40 or 50 dominant mosquito species that are important for its spread.”
VECNet will work, Burkot explains, by creating a single tool that enables stakeholders to test out their ideas in a vast, worldwide simulation of the disease. Users will be able to try out potential solutions, and see what works best and when. Better, they will be able to combine their ideas to create results that are more than the sum of their parts.
Despite intense efforts, the gold standard for disease control — a highly effective vaccine against malaria — doesn’t yet exist. While the standard treatment drug, artemisinin, is largely effective, more choices would be useful, for when the microscopic Plasmodium parasite develops resistance.
But focusing only on those goals, as worthy as they are, would miss an important point. The tools for eradicating malaria may already be in our hands. Larvicides can kill malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes before they take flight. Insecticide-treated bed nets and spraying building interiors can keep the insects away from people when they’re most vulnerable. And artemisinin is still, usually, effective.
The question is, how well are we using the current malaria-fighting measures? Are they coming at the right time and in the right place? Are we using them as cost-effectively as we can? And, could tweaking one of the old standbys give us a bump far out of proportion to its cost?
The stakes are high: Over 600,000 deaths per year. More than 200 million people falling desperately ill. The third leading cause of child death worldwide — in Africa, it kills one child every minute. And the disease is spreading — global climate change, human migration and land use changes all play a role in expanding its geographic footprint.
In order to make the vision of VECNet’s simulator a reality, a computer system — machines, software, and databases — must be created. Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) and the University of Notre Dame will develop this VECNet Cyber-Infrastructure over the next year.
“The larger VECNet community has been at it for over three years now, assembling some of the necessary models and data,” says Nathan Stone, VECNet principal investigator at PSC. “This year’s challenge is all about integration and execution — like assembling a race car with parts from two Humvees and a bus so that any cabbie could use it to win the Indy 500.”
“What we’re attempting to do with the VECNet project is to create a way to simplify sifting through the data to allow less technologically sophisticated users to contribute,” Burkot adds. The system, a web-based tool that will be accessible and usable without advanced computer or modeling training, will be operational, with VECNet stakeholders beginning to learn how to use it, at the end of the current one-year grant.
Using the system, researchers could test how a newly identified strain of insecticide-resistant malaria-carrying mosquitos is likely to spread and affect disease prevalence. In-country public health officers could figure out whether a $100,000 eradication grant would be most effective if spent on larvicides, insecticide-treated bed netting or indoor spraying. Industrial developers of mosquito control interventions and international funding agencies could make better decisions about how best to invest in new products and programs.
“The VECNet project will host data archives about the transmission of malaria and computer models that predict the effects of different interventions on the course and spread of the disease,” says Gregory Madey, principal investigator at Notre Dame. “By jointly designing, developing and deploying these computational resources, Notre Dame and PSC will support the VECNet consortium in its goal to inform decision makers and support the eradication of malaria from the planet.”
Nothing like the VECNet project exists in public health. The closest parallel is that of weather forecasting — which offers some lessons for what VECNet must accomplish. For one thing, vector control experts will need to enact a common system of data formatting, reporting procedures and a number of other compatibility steps that exist in weather reporting but not public health. Also, a weather report can tell you whether it’s a good idea to take an umbrella but it can’t guarantee it will rain. Similarly, VECNet stakeholders will need to learn how best to use the system’s predictions.
Meeting the very different needs of users from the research, private and public spheres will also be important. Researchers will need to see the project as built on solid scientific footing with transparency as a chief goal. Corporate researchers will need to have their proprietary ideas guarded so they can reap the fruits of their R&D labors. And government officials will need answers that are both economically feasible and politically doable in the context of their own systems of governance.
Reaching this goal will be a challenge — but doing so will pay off in saving hundreds of thousands of human lives and untold misery, Stone says.
“VECNet brings together an unprecedented variety of stakeholders: clinical, environmental and entomological researchers; public policy makers; funding agencies and technical experts,” he says. “The team is pleased to provide the infrastructural venue to guide stake-holders through a common, web interface by which all parties may advance the common cause of malaria eradication.”
About PSC: The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (http://www.psc.edu) is a joint effort of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh together with Westinghouse Electric Company. Established in 1986, PSC is supported by several federal agencies, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and private industry, and is a major partner in the National Science Foundation XSEDE program.
About the University of Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame (UND), founded in 1842, is an independent research university located adjacent to the city of South Bend, Indiana. Work on the VECNet project will be performed jointly by scientists and developers from UND’s Center for Research Computing, Department of Biological Sciences, Department of Computer Science & Engineering and the Hesburgh Library.
About James Cook University: One of the world's leading institutions focusing on the tropics, Australia's James Cook University is surrounded by the spectacular ecosystems of the rainforests of the Wet tropics, the dry savannahs, and the iconic Great Barrier Reef. Ranked in the top four percent of the world's tertiary institutions by the respected Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, James Cook University is dedicated to creating a brighter future for life in the tropics world-wide, through graduates and discoveries that make a difference.