The threat of mosquito-borne outbreaks of emerging viruses such as Ross River, Dengue, Chikungunya and Zika virus will be tackled by the newly established Research Group for Emerging Viruses, Inflammation and Therapeutics at Menzies Health Institute Queensland.
Led by internationally-renowned virologist Professor Suresh Mahalingam, the group, based at Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus, aims to be the leading Australian research entity focusing on emerging viruses, developing vaccines and drugs for effective treatment.
“Our research program is focusing on basic mechanistic research to understand how emerging and existent viruses, particularly arboviruses such as chikungunya, dengue and Zika, cause disease,” Professor Mahalingam said.
“We will use this information to develop drugs to treat disease and vaccines for disease prevention.
“The group is already leading the field in vaccine research and development with the licensing of our Zika virus vaccine to international pharma and we expect a further licensing deal for our chikungunya virus vaccine will close soon.”
A drug for treating alphavirus disease that emerged from the team’s basic research program has recently completed Phase II clinical trials in Australia, with a second trial planned in South America.
Professor Mahalingam said the group would also have a strong focus on collaborations with researchers and public health officials in the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea and South East Asian countries due to their vulnerability to mosquito-borne diseases.
“Because of the large populations of these countries, exposure to these viruses is huge with the risk of outbreak immense.
“That’s why we want to establish training opportunities for their medical professionals to learn new technologies in mosquito-borne viruses including diagnostics, surveillance and reporting as well as treatment and prevention.”
He said while Australia had not had any major outbreaks of arboviruses, there was no reason to become complacent.
“It’s not a matter of if but when, as you can never know what will trigger the next outbreak.”
The group aims to recruit outstanding researchers worldwide to aid its goal of becoming the leading Australian emerging arbovirus research group.
In addition, Professor Mahalingam says, “We put the highest importance on training the research leaders of tomorrow. Mentoring junior scientists and promoting their careers is an essential part of what we want to achieve.”
The group has a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research, wanting to collaborate extensively with researchers with different areas of expertise, such as medicinal and organic chemists, environmental scientists and bioinformaticians.
“We have particularly strong and productive collaborations with clinicians from around Australia including rheumatologists, infectious disease physicians and orthopaedic surgeons.”
“Our researchers have already validated major findings from in vitro and in vivo infection models using human clinical samples.”