CII-Saudi Program Combats MERS and Future Biological Threats

Posted 2/12/2015 11:33:41 AM

February 11, 2015—The Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at the Mailman School and the Department of Agriculture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have formalized a $2.8 million agreement to train scientists in advanced methods for diagnosis and surveillance of infectious diseases, including the Middle East Respiratory Virus, better known as MERS, which has infected 965 people, of whom 357 have died.

“Since the start of the MERS outbreak in 2012, we have worked closely with Saudi scientists to determine the animal origins of MERS. This agreement will ensure that scientists there have the specialized training needed to address the ongoing outbreak and build the country’s capacity to face other infectious threats in the future,” said W. Ian Lipkin, director of CII.  

Over the next two years, CII faculty in New York will provide classroom and practical, hands-on training for twelve Saudi scientists in methods for detecting infectious agents. In addition, CII will provide onsite technical support for Saudi laboratories and training for technicians. 

CII and Saudi scientists were the first to report evidence of MERS coronavirus in bats and camels. Their findings led to interventions that have reduced the risk of new transmission to humans. As part of the new two-year agreement, CII will continue to study MERS in Saudi Arabia to determine whether the virus is carried in pets, including dogs and cats.

Lipkin and Sami S. Alnohait, Assistant Deputy Minister for Animal Resources in the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture, signed the agreement on February 10.

Student Team Wins USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge

Posted 2/12/2015 11:18:04 AM

A team of third-year students—Jason Kang (Biomedical Engineering), Katherine Jin (Computer Science and Biology, Columbia College), and Kevin Tyan (Biology, Columbia College)—has won the USAID Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge with their solution, Highlight, a powdered additive for bleach solutions that improves decontamination of infectious diseases. Their team is one of 12 selected from more than 1,500 applicants who will receive support from USAID and undergo intensive testing to ensure readiness for production and field deployment of their product. Highlight’s win comes on the heels of the Fire Department of the City of New York’s decision in December to incorporate Highlight into its HazMat unit decontamination protocol.

“This has been such a long journey since October -- it's been very tough but it’s also been incredibly rewarding,” says Kang. “I can't even begin to count the number of times we met up at night and on weekends testing all the different iterations of our formula, calling up suppliers, writing and submitting proposals, making trips up to the medical campus, and so on. We are really excited and proud to be chosen by USAID to continue our work!”

Highlight was born when the team took part in last fall’s Ebola Design Challenge, an idea put forth by Center for Infection & Immunity Director W. Ian Lipkin and sponsored by the Engineering School and the Mailman School of Public Health to develop low-cost, technology-driven solutions to meet the urgent challenges posed by the Ebola crisis. The goal of the rapid-fire design challenge was to bring together students and faculty across Columbia and across disciplines to come up with solutions to better protect the many healthcare workers who are at high risk for infection. 

Kang, Jin, and Tyan pushed through their classes, homework, tests, and papers, while spending hundreds of hours on their project, refining Highlight, and figuring out how to produce and market it. They quickly formed a company, Kinnos Inc., with advisors, including Columbia Engineering Dean Mary C. Boyce; Samuel Sia, associate professor in biomedical engineering; Aaron Kyle, lecturer in biomedical engineering; and W. Ian Lipkin, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at Mailman and Director, Center for Infection & Immunity.

Founders of Kinnos Inc., from left to right: Kevin Tyan, Jason Kang, Katherine Jin
—Photo Courtesy of Katherine Jin

The team focused in on personnel decontamination. Highlight colorizes the bleach solution and modifies the solution’s liquid properties to provide visualization of sprayed regions, improve coverage and adherence to all surfaces, and increase antiviral potency. It can be added directly to bleach solutions currently used in the field and is compatible with standard issue contractor sprayers. “It’s extremely versatile and highly effective, and can be used to decontaminate any infectious disease, not just Ebola,” Jin notes.

While bleach is the most commonly used disinfectant for surfaces contaminated with the Ebola virus, it is transparent and forms droplets when sprayed on water-proof surfaces, like personal protective equipment suits. “So it’s really difficult to ensure complete topical coverage with bleach during decontamination, and that can leave health care workers susceptible to infection,” Tyan explains. Highlight improves the effectiveness of bleach mist decontamination and ensures the safety of health care workers, enabling them to visualize with color exactly what has or has not been decontaminated. The team is working extensively with the Center for Infection & Immunity to confirm effectiveness against live viruses including West Nile and influenza.

During the Ebola Design Challenge, which spanned just a few weeks, the students often had to choose between going to class and making their presentations, or going out on the weekend versus staying in to test a new reagent. Says Kang, “Back in November, I decided not to study for my organic chemistry midterm and go to Mt. Sinai Hospital to demo Highlight in front of the FDNY. I got absolutely destroyed on the test, but the FDNY ended up incorporating Highlight into their decontamination protocol, so it was worth it!”

Rats of New York and the Diseases They Carry

Posted 10/13/2014 12:18:50 PM


Study Finds Dangerous Pathogens Lurk in the City’s  Rat Population, New Animal Model for Hepatitis C

NEW YORK (Oct. 14, 2014)—In the first study to look at would-be diseases carried by New York City rats, scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health identified bacterial pathogens, including E. coli, Salmonella, and C. difficile, that cause mild to life-threatening gastroenteritis in people; Seoul hantavirus, which causes Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever and kidney failure in humans; and the closest relative to human hepatitis C. Results appear in the journal mBio.

The researchers trapped 133 Norway rats at 5 sites in New York City, focusing on rats trapped inside residential buildings. In the lab, targeted molecular assays confirmed the presence of 15 of the 20 bacterial and protozoan pathogens they looked for and one virus: Seoul hantavirus was present in eight rats. It is the first time the virus has been documented in New York City, and genetic clues suggest that it may be a recent arrival. Human infection has been associated with multiple cases of hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome, and chronic renal disease in Maryland and Los Angeles. The virus has also been implicated in cases of hypertension.

It is unknown how often humans become sick from rats and what viruses cross over, but according to first author Cadhla Firth, PhD, transmission could happen in any number of ways. Rats leave behind quantities of the pathogens in saliva, urine, or feces that people or their pets come in contact with. 

“New Yorkers are constantly exposed to rats and the pathogens they carry, perhaps more than any other animal,” explains Dr. Firth, who conducted the study as a research scientist at Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity. “Despite this, we know very little about the impact they have on human health. ”

Animal Model for Hepatitis C

High throughput screening methods developed by the Center for Infection and Immunity employed to test for the presence of known and unknown microbes identified 18 novel viruses, including two rat hepaciviruses dubbed NrHV-1 and NrHV-2. Although these are not the closest relatives to human hepatitis C discovered, the identification of these viruses in a species commonly used in medical research is extremely important, the researchers say. Notably, the two viruses replicate naturally in the animal’s liver, which suggests that their lifecycle is similar to human hepatitis C virus.

“With the loss of the chimpanzee model for hepatitis C, the availability of an animal model that has fidelity to the human model is extremely important to efforts to develop drugs and vaccines,” says senior author W. Ian Lipkin, MD, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia’s Mailman School, who has discovered more than 600 viruses over the course of his career.

An estimated 3.2 million Americans and 130-150 million people worldwide have a chronic hepatitis C virus infection, which can lead to liver cancer and cirrhosis.

Rats as Sentinels for Human Disease

The study developed out of conversations between Dr. Lipkin and the late Joshua Lederberg, a molecular biologist and Nobel laureate. The two scientists wanted to study rats in New York City to have a point of comparison in case a pathogen crossed over and caused a human outbreak. “It started as a biodefense initiative,” says Dr. Lipkin. “If we are to pick up something that is a novel threat to public health, we have to know the baseline microflora.” 

Dr. Lipkin continues: “Rats are sentinels for human disease. They’re all over the city; uptown, downtown, underground. Everywhere they go, they collect microbes and amplify them. And because these animals live close to people, there is ample opportunity for exchange.”

Continual monitoring of the rat population is needed along with studies in people to understand how the animals and the microbes they carry make us sick, Dr. Lipkin notes. With modern disease surveillance methods, a repeat of the rat-borne Black Death, which killed as much as 60 percent of the population of 14th Century Europe, or a similar outbreak need not happen.

Dr. Firth is currently a research scientist at CSIRO in Geelong, Australia. Co-authors include Meera Bhat, Simon H. Williams, Juliette M. Conte, James Ng, Joel Garcia, Nishit P. Bhuva, Bohyun Lee, Xiaoyu Che, and Phenix-Lan Quan at the Center for Infection and Immunity; Matthew A. Firth at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Matthew J. Frye at Cornell University; and Peter Simmonds at the University of Edinburgh.

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