Featured News Fight is on to beat exotic diseases

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Tue, 14 Sep 2021

Fight is on to beat exotic diseases

Matt Field
Dr Matt Field.

A James Cook University scientist plans to improve the detection and treatment of new infectious diseases by using a breakthrough technology in rural and remote health clinics that can stop outbreaks before they spread to the rest of Australia.

Associate Professor Matt Field is a Principal Senior Research Fellow in Bioinformatics at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at JCU. He said infectious diseases contribute to approximately 6300 deaths and 400,000 infections each year in Australia.

“The pathogens that cause these diseases are more common in the tropics and disproportionately affect Northern Australia, especially regional and remote tropical regions.

“This means Northern Australia is uniquely placed to detect febrile illnesses caused by novel exotic infectious diseases given its close proximity to other tropical developing countries,” said Dr Field.

But he said many Northern Australian hospitals are ill-equipped to accurately identify new and exotic pathogens, as current diagnostics are time consuming and often fail to make a diagnosis.

“The answer is what is known as metagenomic next-generation sequencing (mNGS). This can revolutionise laboratory-based infectious disease diagnosis by simultaneously detecting virus, bacteria, parasite and fungi in a single test,” said Dr Field.

He said that despite the great potential, the clinical use of mNGS remains unfeasible without the development of new software methodologies.

In funding announced today, Dr Field will receive more than $1.4 million from the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council to solve the problem.

“We’re going to create a standard operating procedure suitable for remote clinical mNGS analysis of blood samples by developing computational workflows and concise clinical reports suitable for use in remote healthcare settings. We have early data showing this approach works,” said Dr Field.

He said the project hopes to fundamentally change the diagnostic, treatment and public health landscape of Northern Australia.

“Knowing the correct pathogen will help prevent an over-reliance on broad-spectrum antimicrobials, helping slow the spread of drug resistance.

“In global terms it will have an enormous impact, as by 2050 half of the world’s population is predicted to live in the tropics where the majority of exotic diseases currently remain undiagnosed,” said Dr Field.


Dr Matt Field
E: matt.field@jcu.edu.au