Emory University scientists have received a five-year grant for more than $3 million to participate in a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative to develop powerful computer modeling techniques to analyze and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. The MIDAS study (Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study) will harness the nation's computing skills to enhance our ability to respond to both disease epidemics, such as SARS, and to bioterrorism. The Emory research team, in the Department of Biostatistics of the Rollins School of Public Health, includes principal investigator Ira Longini, Jr., PhD, professor of biostatistics, M. Elizabeth Halloran, MD, DSc, professor of biostatistics, and their colleagues Azhar Nizam, MS, senior associate of biostatistics and Rustom Antia, PhD, associate professor of biology in Emory College.
The MIDAS initiative is sponsored by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which awarded a total of four research grants totaling more than $28 million over five years. Three of the grants will support the creation of mathematical models to study various aspects of infectious disease epidemics and community responses, and a fourth award funds researchers who will develop a central database to organize information from the other three groups. It also supports the development of user-friendly computer modeling tools for the broader scientific community, policy makers and public health officials to use to simulate epidemics and response strategies.
"MIDAS will play a key role in the NIH biodefense plan," said Elias A. Zerhouni, MD., NIH director. "The computer models created through this initiative will help us determine the best strategies to detect, control and prevent the spread of disease."
MIDAS will bring together interdisciplinary teams of scientists with expertise ranging from mathematics and computer science to epidemiology, genetics, and public health. The network of MIDAS scientists will be guided by a steering committee of investigators with broad expertise in modeling, infectious diseases and public health. This committee will establish policies for the network, set standards for data management, evaluate progress and provide a forum for the exchange of ideas within and beyond the MIDAS network.
"MIDAS is designed not only to help prepare us for infectious disease crises, but also to be an active part of the response," said Jeremy M. Berg, PhD, NIGMS director. "In the case of a national medical emergency, MIDAS scientists can redirect their work to help government officials quickly determine the best way to deal with the epidemic. The modeling tools will also advance our ability to study complex systems with many interacting parts, which is essential to truly understand biological processes," he added.
The research team in the Department of Biostatistics at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health and the Biology Department of Emory College will model a disease outbreak in hypothetical American communities (population sizes 2,000 to 48,000) to find the best method(s) of controlling the epidemic. The researchers will examine the effectiveness of policies including surveillance and containment, vaccination, medical treatment and the closing of key institutions. They will adapt their model for smallpox, SARS, pandemic influenza and other possible bioterrorism agents or naturally occurring diseases. They also will investigate the interaction of microorganisms with the immune system and how it relates to disease spread through the population.