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New UNC laboratory to help track and control tropical diseases

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health has established a new Gillings Innovation Lab to track and map tropical infectious diseases such as malaria, using state-of-the-art molecular and demographic methods.

Better information about the prevalence and location of diseases will help national and international health organizations around the world treat and control these diseases.

Steven R. Meshnick, M.D., Ph.D., UNC an epidemiology professor in the School of Public Health and an expert on molecular epidemiology and infectious diseases, will lead the new project, known as the laboratory for molecular surveillance of tropical diseases.

The lab will work with the research and evaluation company ORC-Macro, the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, and the Kinshasa School of Public Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Together, the group will measure the distribution of malaria, drug-resistant malaria, African sleeping sickness and other infectious diseases in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Infectious diseases remain the leading cause of death and disability in developing countries," Meshnick said. "Current maps and prevalence data on tropical diseases are usually estimates based on samples that paint a potentially inaccurate picture. We want to help international and national health organizations get better data and maps for tropical diseases from representative population-based surveys. Better information will help guide efforts to control tropical diseases, and also will help in evaluating the effectiveness of efforts to control their spread."

The team includes geographer Mike Emch, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and molecular microbiologist, Melissa Miller, Ph.D., assistant professor in the pathology and laboratory medicine department in the School of Medicine. It also includes Democratic Republic of Congo scientists, which should help build expertise within the country.

Meshnick said he hoped the new lab's disease surveillance approach will become a model for similar surveillance programs in other developing countries.

"This work will help the 'poorest of the poor,' who bear the brunt of the burden of tropical diseases," Meshnick said.

The team's initial work will involve analyzing 9,000 dried blood spots collected in 2007 for tracking HIV infection.

The Gillings Innovation Labs, part of Carolina Public Health Solutions, were established in the school in 2007 and are funded through a $50 million gift pledged by Dennis and Joan Gillings. In honor of the gift, the school will be renamed the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health on Friday (Sept. 26).

The labs' purpose is to anticipate future public health challenges and accelerate solutions through groundbreaking science, research, teaching and practice, and through interdisciplinary teams and effective translation of interventions to high-impact settings. Meshnick's is the 10th such lab announced by the school. It will begin in January 2009 and continue for two years.

Other Gillings Innovation Labs have been established to develop vaccines for respiratory diseases that are simpler to store and administer than current vaccines; provide greater access to safe and clean water; improve care for the mentally ill; monitor air quality; and weigh benefits of locally grown foods.

Patric Lane | EurekAlert!
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