Computers Combat Disease: New Modeling Grants Target Epidemics, Bioterror
A new initiative harnesses our nation's computing skill to enhance
our ability to respond to disease epidemics and bioterrorism. The
initiative, called MIDAS, will develop powerful computer modeling
techniques to analyze and respond to infectious disease outbreaks,
whether they occur naturally, such as SARS, or are released intentionally
in a bioterrorist attack. MIDAS (an acronym for Models of Infectious
Disease Agent Study) is sponsored by the National Institute of General
Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a part of the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) that has a strong interest in bioinformatics and computational
NIGMS recently awarded the first four grants in this new initiative,
totaling more than $28 million over five years. Three of these grants
will support the creation of mathematical models to study various
aspects of infectious disease epidemics and community responses.
These research grants together total $9.5 million over five years
(averaging more than $640,000 per grant for the first year). A fourth
award, totaling $18.8 million over five years ($3 million for the
first year), funds researchers to 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, M.D., 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, Ph.D., 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 awards have been made to:
- A collaboration of scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School
of Public Health (lead), the Brookings Institution, the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration, the University of Maryland
and Imperial College (London). This research group will create highly
visual, user-friendly computational analyses of disease outbreaks.
These models will use historic and modern data about epidemics and
incorporate factors such as disease incubation period, transmission
rate, weather patterns, peoples individual susceptibility
and social networks. The researchers will then introduce and evaluate
the effectiveness of containment methods like vaccination, contact
tracing and quarantine. They will initially focus on smallpox, dengue
fever and West Nile virus, then will apply their model to study
other infectious agents. (Donald Burke, M.D., principal investigator)
- A group of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This research
group will explore the effects of social networks in hypothetical
urban areas (population 1.5 million) on the spread and possible
containment of multiple, interacting disease-causing organisms.
The scientists will model how social contacts might change in response
to an outbreak or to intervention strategies. They will modify the
social networks and populations to simulate epidemics in a variety
of hypothetical cities. (Stephen Eubank, Ph.D., principal investigator)
- A research team at Emory University. This research group 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 will also
investigate how certain microorganisms cause disease within individual
people and then spread through a population. (Ira Longini, Ph.D.,
- An informatics group spearheaded by Research Triangle Institute
International. This team includes members with diverse expertise
from SAS Institute, Inc., IBM and Duke and Emory universities. The
group will provide the scientific community, policy makers and medical
personnel with a wide array of computational and analytic tools
and data sources tailor-made to model emerging infectious diseases
and public health responses. (Diane Wagener, Ph.D., principal investigator)
More information about MIDAS and other NIGMS-supported efforts
to model infectious diseases is available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/research/midas.html.
NIGMS supports basic biomedical research that lays the foundation
for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. For
NIGMS news releases, science education booklets and other materials,
NIGMS is part of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services.
To arrange an interview with NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.,
contact Don Ralbovsky in the NIH Office of Communications and Public
Liaison at 301-496-5787.
To arrange an interview with NIGMS director Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D.,
contact the NIGMS Office of Communications and Public Liaison at