N.C. A&T’s Dr. Suzanne O’Regan Part of Team Using Big Data & Artificial Intelligence to Advance Disease Prevention
Through a new $2 million National Science Foundation grant, scientists at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, the University of Georgia, and North Carolina A&T State University are harnessing the power of machine learning to forecast outbreaks of zoonotic disease.
Each year, more than a billion people become sick from Ebola, Zika, SARS, and other pathogens acquired from wildlife, livestock, and other animals. Prevention relies on an ability to predict when and where pathogens are likely to make the leap from animals to people.
Barbara Han, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute, is leading the five-year study. She explains, “We want to help shift society from a reactive to a proactive approach to managing zoonotic disease. Instead of responding to outbreaks, let’s try to stop them from happening in the first place. Using big data as a potential surveillance tool is an exciting new step toward prevention.”
Funding will enable the team to bring together information on pathogens, potential animal hosts, and environmental factors known to facilitate disease transmission, with the goal of developing innovative methods of mapping when and where the next major zoonotic disease outbreak might occur.
John Drake of the University of Georgia explains, “We are creating models which draw ‘boundaries’ around which species can host which pathogens, which pathogens can pass from animals to humans, and what combination of environmental factors facilitate spillover and human-to-human transmission. On the basis of these biological properties, we can pinpoint where disease emergence is possible.”
Phase one of the study involves building predictive statistical models that will help the researchers identify traits common among animals that carry disease, and pathogens and parasites that cross the species barrier. “We are looking at data that describe hosts, pathogens, and their environments, to determine which combinations of these features presage disease being realized on a global landscape,” Han says.
Models are built using extensive data sets on the physical and life history traits of host species and known pathogens. Host-pathogen pairings are then linked to the geographical locations with suitable environmental conditions. Also considered are conditions surrounding documented disease outbreaks to determine what factors were at play when that disease broke out.
Suzanne O’Regan of North Carolina A&T State University explains, “By using data that is global in scale, we are seeking to reveal generalizable features of ‘good’ disease carriers. Over 50 life history features are being incorporated into models for most mammal groups.” This includes data on animals’ physical characteristics, metabolic and reproductive rates, range of diet, and timing of daily activity – whether the animal is primarily active during the day, at night, or at dawn and dusk.
On the pathogen side, the team is interested in: whether a pathogen is able to survive in a given host and environment, the mechanism by which the pathogen is transmitted between hosts, and whether it exhibits sustained transmission between people – as opposed to a single ‘dead-end’ transmission from animal host to human.
Environmental features broadly consider temperature, precipitation, seasonality, and biome. The study will also encompass country-specific socioecological factors such as GDP, public health infrastructure, and investment in research and healthcare – all of which bear important implications for how effectively a country can manage disease prevalence and respond to an outbreak.
The second subproject will investigate how diseases move dynamically within a system. Once the traits of hosts, pathogens, and their environments – and the relationships among them – are known, the team will incorporate these into mathematical models to reveal how disease dynamics might play out in animal populations over time. This approach accounts for traits such as lifespan and rate of reproduction, which directly impact how fast a pathogen can spread via a particular host.
Han explains, “The novelty of this work is in bringing biological realism via machine learning into a classic body of theory, leveraging large sets of biological data available to us. These tools merge data mining and machine learning with established methods of studying disease dynamics to help us think carefully about what’s distinguishing animal groups from each other in terms of zoonotic disease, and eventually, for risk of human spillover and epidemics.”
The team also plans to use the models and techniques developed in this project to respond to zoonotic disease outbreaks that might occur during the course of the study.
N.C. A&T and Industry to Bring Novel Aspirin Derivatives to the Marketplace
Patients who require the benefits of aspirin without the accompanying stomach irritation are a step closer to comfort and cures with the signing of an exclusive licensing agreement. Dr. Shengmin Sang, a food scientist with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, licensed his patent for a family of novel aspirin-derived compounds to SARISA Therapeutics, an Invenshure Company out of Minneapolis, Minn. Sang’s patented compounds may be useful in treating or preventing colon cancer, heart disease and other disorders. Through this commercialization effort, more patients may be able to receive the benefits of aspirin without incurring adverse side effects.
“The timing of this agreement couldn’t be better for patients,” explains SARISA Therapeutics CEO Danny Cunagin. “Last April, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force added colon cancer to the list of diseases for which aspirin should be prescribed as a preventive treatment. We aim to make Dr. Sang’s discoveries available to all patients who need aspirin’s therapeutic usefulness minus its gastric irritation side effects.”
Dr. Sang, a professor and lead scientist for functional foods in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, developed the new compounds at N.C. A&T’s Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies. “It is gratifying when our hard work is proven capable of improving people’s lives,” said Sang. “Our discoveries could be helpful in treating anything for which aspirin is recommended for treatment or prevention. Through our research we have found it to be less toxic to the stomach than regular aspirin.”
Tests on colon cancer cell lines showed that Sang’s novel compounds, containing both aspirin and bioactive phytochemicals, were more effective at inducing cancer cell death than any of the individual components used alone or physically mixed. Sang describes his findings in the studies, “Novel Resveratrol-based Aspirin Prodrugs: Synthesis, Metabolism and Anticancer Activity,” published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, and “Gastroprotective -Gingerol Aspirinate as a Novel Chemopreventive Prodrug of Aspirin for Colon Cancer,” published in Scientific Reports. Funding for this, and other studies that gave rise to his patent and this commercialization agreement, came from the National Institutes of Health and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
The Center for Outreach in Alzheimer’s, Aging and Community Health at N.C. A&T Receives $2 Million Grant from the Merck Foundation
The Center for Outreach in Alzheimer’s, Aging and Community Health (COAACH), a university-sponsored Center addressing literacy, care management, training and research in Alzheimer’s and other aging related diseases such as diabetes, announced it has been awarded a $2 million grant from the Merck Foundation to expand the capacity, operations and sustainability of the Center. Merck’s financial support will extend COAACH’s ability to solidify local and state-level partnerships, educate and engage North Carolina’s most vulnerable populations and create a sustainable model for community-based support.
Building upon a 2013 gift from Merck, which helped to establish the Center, this latest financial commitment will enable COAACH to establish a Caregiver College to extend education opportunities, implement a Lay Health Advisor Model of Care to broaden outreach into underserved patient and caregiver populations, and create a Family Navigation Program to augment its current early detection and care management programs.
“The Center is extremely grateful to the Merck Foundation for its ongoing support to this university, but more importantly to the aging residents and caregivers in North Carolina who need and deserve our support,” said Dr. Goldie Byrd, the Center’s interim director. “With Merck’s continued financial participation, we are able to build upon past success, and further impact education and outreach, community engaged research and health policy in North Carolina.”
The Center for Outreach in Alzheimer’s, Aging and Community Health promotes healthy aging for all communities. It provides education, community empowerment and evidence-based research so that individuals, particularly the most vulnerable, can live life with quality, dignity, and independence. The Center sponsors numerous education and training activities such as its monthly Lunch ‘n Learn Series, frequent patient assessment opportunities, support groups, conferences, and other valuable caregiver resources. In 2016 COAACH held its 8th Annual Caregivers Education Conference. It also conducts research in Alzheimer’s genetics and community engagement projects. Please learn more About COAACH at www.coaachhealth.org.
About The Merck Foundation
The Merck Foundation is a U.S.-based, private charitable foundation. Established in 1957 by Merck, a global health care leader, the Foundation is funded entirely by the company and is Merck’s chief source of funding support to qualified non-profit charitable organizations. Since its inception, the Merck Foundation has contributed more than $870 million to support important initiatives that address societal needs and are consistent with Merck’s overall mission to help the world be well. For more information, visit www.merckgiving.com
N.C. A&T’s Clinical Immersion Experience
Five N.C. A&T students spent two summer weeks at UNC hospitals and clinics in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shadowing doctors and clinicians as part of A&T’s first Clinical Immersion Experience. Kierra Fleming, Lauren Florence, Marlayna Jackson, Rina Mudanyi and Jerria Turner, all bioengineering or chemical engineering students at A&T, witnessed firsthand the clinical needs of physicians, rehabilitation professionals and nurses as they relate to bioengineering applications. Dr. Matt McCullough, associate professor in the Department of Chemical, Biological and Bioengineering founded the immersion program through a grant from VentureWell. The students will apply knowledge gained during the clinical experience in their upcoming year-long capstone course experience.
Jerria Turner, a senior biomedical engineering student from Chesterfield, Virginia, participated in the program. “I first learned about the clinical immersion experience from McCullough. As he told me more about it, my interest grew because I had always wondered about the clinical side of biomedical engineering applications, and I knew this experience would provide answers for me.”
Turner said it was time well spent. “This experience definitely reassured me that I am pursuing and studying exactly the right things. I am more confident than ever about my chosen path, because I know the topics that my peers and I are researching and studying in class are preparing us to be individuals that will change and improve the lives of many in the future. I definitely see myself working in the clinical field. I loved meeting and talking with the different patients. When you create something as an engineer you know it will help or improve someone’s life or their daily functions, but when you’re able to meet one of those people face to face, what you created means more. You believe in the positive impact of what you created or designed because you witness a human being benefitting from it.”