The Pandemic Template
Why private-public partnerships will play an important role in fighting future viral challenges, with Nick Downey, Next Generation Sequencing Collaborations Lead, Integrated DNA Technologies, Iowa, USA
| 5 min read | Interview
What can we learn from COVID-19?
There is a silver lining to the COVID-19 outbreak, first reported more than three years ago: We now know the global community can unite to develop vaccines in record time – and that includes not only health authorities, scientists, and medics, but also the general public who volunteered for clinical trials. With over 12.5 billion vaccine doses administered worldwide, we can reflect on the impact of the pandemic, and how we might prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks.
Indeed, the next viral challenge may already be here. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mpox has infected more than 64,000 people worldwide since May. As the scientific community turns its attention to this virus, we can use the lessons learned in the COVID-19 era to improve our response.
Why will industry–academia partnerships play such an important role in tackling future outbreaks?
Academics are at the forefront of research, investigating outbreaks of new diseases, identifying novel treatment targets, and developing cutting edge diagnostics and therapeutics. New research methods and discoveries born out of academic labs can be vital for scientists around the globe studying, monitoring, and combating disease. However, once new findings and methods have been published, implementing them in various settings and for expanded applications can be an arduous process. These hurdles can be reduced or overcome entirely by collaborating with a private partner that has the expertise and experience to streamline access, standardize protocols, and improve efficiency. This also can save significant time and cost, which is essential for a rapid and effective pandemic response.
How has Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) worked with academic partners?
In 2012, I moved from academic research to a role in scientific applications at IDT, where I have maintained a passionate interest in infectious disease research. The scientific team at IDT and I were very fortunate to partner with leading researchers who share the same passion, including Josh Quick, University of Birmingham, UK, and Nikki Freed, University of Auckland, New Zealand. While tracking the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Quick needed a way to sequence the Ebola genome on the road. He developed the ARTIC panel – a next generation sequencing (NGS) method for genomic surveillance that can monitor how a virus evolves and spreads in real time. This approach can inform how and when community health controls are imposed, helping manage – and someday hopefully prevent – pandemics.
Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nikki Freed and Olin Silander, Massey University, New Zealand, developed the Midnight panel – an NGS method that sequences the SARS-CoV-2 genome for rapid contact tracing and monitoring of community transmission. The Midnight method only sequences the viral genome and excludes the excessive amount of human transcriptome also present in the RNA sample.
Most recently, Chantal Vogels from the Yale School of Public Health approached IDT to support their team’s development of a method for sequencing the mpox virus. We are currently helping her distribute an NGS panel based on the ARTIC approach. We hope that it will contribute to the research community’s expanding knowledge of the mpox virus as it evolves, informing our understanding of its transmissibility and virulence, the kind of disease it causes, and how we can successfully fight it.
These collaborations highlight the importance of private–public partnerships, especially during a crisis. We must continue working together to overcome scientific challenges so that we are better prepared for future disease outbreaks.
What are the keys to a successful collaboration?
There are many considerations to take into account when aiming to establish a successful collaboration. Aligning at the outset on financial terms, intellectual property, operational and logistical matters are obligatory requirements that need to be transparent and carefully constructed. In addition, to achieve strong results, it is important that both organizations clearly define their roles and capitalize on each other’s core strengths.
Most important however, are trust and understanding. Particularly in a time of crisis, when there is greater urgency and more at stake, each party must double down on listening to their partner and understanding both short and long-term needs – and developing tailored solutions to meet them.
Are there any pitfalls when developing more advanced tools?
As part of the collaborative process, it’s my job to identify how IDT solutions can improve methodology and workflow; however, introducing new components to a trusted and well-established processes can be disruptive – and could impact the accessibility of such methods in countries and institutions with limited resources. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how critical it is for researchers in limited-resource settings to be able to access advanced analytical technologies – including NGS. These considerations are important; private–public partnerships are all about balance to maintain a well-functioning, united team.
What does the road to commercialization look like?
When it comes to commercialization, there are many factors at play. It is paramount we understand that infectious diseases spread fast – and so the responses to combat them need to happen quickly to be effective. At IDT, when there is news of an outbreak, we come together to assess the potential needs of researchers in the field and start developing solutions for scientists in anticipation of these needs. Advancements within the global scientific community benefit us all – even if the need for solutions is on a small scale!
To prepare for the next viral challenge, we must continue to seek out collaborations with scientists on the frontlines of infectious disease research and recognize the role we play in driving research forward globally.
Nick Downey is NGS Collaborations Lead at Integrated DNA Technologies, a global genomics solutions provider driving advances that inspire scientists to dream big and achieve their next breakthroughs. He earned a PhD in Molecular Biology from University of Iowa and gained postdoctoral experience and time as an assistant professor. Dr. Downey has been at IDT since 2012.
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