Global ChallengesResearch and Teaching

Edinburgh scientists are finding that collaboration is the key to solving the world’s growing health problems.

Nestled at the heart of the King’s Buildings, home to much of the University’s science and engineering research and teaching, there lies a small but tidy office on a narrow corridor. The setting could be any thriving university: animated students on their way from seminar to common room, every wall featuring a crowded noticeboard.

So far, so typical. And yet it is here, at the inconspicuous door of room 4.29 where a truly exceptional scientist can be found. One of the leading researchers in his field, Professor Sir Adrian Bird sits at his computer, looking out over the green fields beyond.

“It’s a pretty good view,” he says with a welcoming smile.

Indeed the world must look pretty rosy from Sir Adrian’s position. The University’s Buchanan Professor of Genetics, he has spent much of his academic career in Edinburgh – working up from his PhD in 1970 to become director of the Welcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology. In recent years, he has received a host of accolades, including his 2014 knighthood for services to science, as well as the award of the Shaw prize, with Huda Y Zoghbi, and election as a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences this year.

It’s not bad for a man whose A-level results would, by his own admission, fail to fight off the competition for a place on an Edinburgh undergraduate degree programme today.

“I didn’t really get school,” he says, laughing. “It wasn’t until I reached university and was taught by people who had a genuine passion for their field that I understood what I could achieve.”

Science increasingly depends on people interacting through their skills and expertise, as well as crucially relying on their imagination. Edinburgh is good at that and our science is better as a result.

Sir Adrian Bird, Buchanan Professor of Genetics

With his mind engaged, Sir Adrian turned his focus to biology. He became internationally celebrated in 2007, when he led pioneering efforts to reverse a genetic form of autism, called Rett Syndrome. The rare disorder, which causes physical and intellectual disability in young girls, is caused by a mutation in the gene known as MECP2.

By developing a mouse model of the condition, Sir Adrian found that when the key gene was restored, the mice fully recovered. For the first time, he showed that the condition was, in mice, completely reversible.

“Rett Syndrome is now regarded as one of the genetic disorders we could cure, if only we could find the key. Although we are not there yet, there are numerous labs around the world working on it, with a hope that simply wasn’t there before,” he says.

Despite the lack of a therapeutic breakthrough since the excitement of his animal study, Sir Adrian is resolutely optimistic about the future of his field. He is also upbeat about the future of Edinburgh biology.

There is no such thing as nationally important science, there is only world science. If you want to make a lasting and meaningful difference that is the stage on which you have to perform.

Professor Sir Adrian Bird

“Biology in Edinburgh has always been strong, but it is stronger than ever now,” he says. “It links increasingly with other disciplines that are themselves growing – physics, engineering, informatics – and so we grow ever stronger on the back of each other’s success.

“Science increasingly depends on people interacting through their skills and expertise, as well as crucially relying on their imagination. Edinburgh is good at that and our science is better as a result.”

Indeed, at Edinburgh the answer to tackling the challenges is coming through a shared understanding, a collective vision of progress and an agreed strategy for how to achieve it. These elements combine in the developing field of One Health science – the view that our greatest health challenges will be met most effectively by sharing expertise across all fields of medicine, veterinary and human.

This vision of a collaborative and interdisciplinary way of working received a significant endorsement earlier this year when the Wolfson Foundation generously pledged £2 million to support the creation of a brand new building for the School of Biological Sciences. The building will have collaborative space and working practices at its heart and the foundation’s gift will support a multi-disciplinary team of scientists working at the cutting edge of infectious diseases research in both humans and livestock.

One Health is the focus for the University’s Global Health Academy, which was set up in 2008. The University has also established Global Academies in Development, Justice, and Environment and Society. Collectively, they bring together experts to take a multidisciplinary approach to tackle a range of challenging global issues.

Arguably one of today’s most pressing needs is increasing antimicrobial resistance (AMR). No longer regarded as a hypothetical or distant concern, AMR has been projected to cause ten million deaths per year by 2050, with a GDP loss of $100 trillion.

Such calculations make the problem very real and a solution urgently needed. Dr Till Bachmann of the University’s Global Health Academy believes one of the key factors for beating AMR is to improve diagnosis of infection.

“At the moment, we often don’t know what exactly is causing an infection, which species of bacteria it may be and what its properties are,” says Dr Bachmann. “Therefore we use broad-spectrum antibiotics as a catch-all. If we could diagnose infections quickly and with greater accuracy, we could develop and use narrow-spectrum antibiotics that target specific bacteria, carrying less risk of building resistance.”

Like Sir Adrian, Dr Bachmann believes that collaboration is crucial and so has sought to build a global network of like-minded academics. In 2015, he hosted the University’s inaugural AMR Diagnostics Challenge Autumn School event specifically focused on tackling AMR.

With leading experts from the US, Europe and India, the week-long programme included the pilot of an international innovation competition. The AMR Diagnostics Challenge brought together bilateral groups of UK and Indian PhD students to develop ideas for new diagnostic approaches. The winning team are now seeking support to develop their concept into a fully funded research project. The next event, to be hosted in India, is planned for early next year.

cause-of-antibiotic-resistance

“Our ultimate aim is to establish a global foundation, which would provide researchers around the world with access to the expertise, training and information they require to tackle antimicrobial resistance wherever they are.”

Dr Till Bachmann

A farmer with his cattle in rural Uganda credit Sue Welburn

A farmer with his cattle and village locals in Uganda Photo courtesy of Professor Sue Welburn

Our ultimate aim is to establish a global foundation, which would provide researchers around the world with access to the expertise, training and information they require to tackle AMR with diagnostics wherever they are,” says Dr Bachmann. “This would empower scientists to develop locally relevant solutions to their greatest problems, while maximising the benefits of global expertise.”

Although public awareness is increasing of the AMR challenge, it is typically less widely appreciated that the crisis holds as much concern for animal health as it does for humans. Currently, livestock account for the majority of total antibiotic usage, making farm animals another breeding ground for AMR. “We need to view the problem in its fullness,” says Dr Bachmann. “Yes, we need better diagnostics and new therapeutics. But we also need to combat the root causes, the situations where antibiotics are currently overprescribed.”

Another One Health scientist whose work is focusing on the links between animal and human health is Professor Sue Welburn, the University’s Vice-Principal Global Access.

She has dedicated her career to combatting sleeping sickness in Africa. A parasitic infection spread by the tsetse fly, from cattle to humans, the fatal condition attacks the central nervous system, causing severe neurological disorders. Médecins Sans Frontières currently estimates that 60 million people in Africa are at risk.

Since 2006, Professor Welburn has led the Stamp Out Sleeping Sickness (SOS) initiative, in conjunction with the Ugandan Ministry of Health. At its inception, the campaign sought to map areas where cattle carried the parasite capable of infecting humans, and offer treatment that would curb the spread. With improved diagnostics, and advanced modelling, Professor Welburn has demonstrated that it is possible to stop transmission with a drug that is extremely cost effective. To date, her work has reduced the number of human-infective cattle by 85 per cent where the project is based in Uganda. She is now seeking to scale up the programme to work in other areas of acute risk in Uganda.

The challenge, as is often the case in impoverished healthcare systems, is one of finance.

“The philanthropy we have received so far has made a huge and lasting difference,” explains Professor Welburn, “We have trained six Ugandan PhD students in Edinburgh, all of whom are now back in Uganda working for universities or government, managing infectious diseases in animals and people.

“In addition, under the SOS programme, we trained international students who now deliver better One Health outcomes for human and animal health in the developing world. The impact of the work these young people have undertaken for Uganda, and the difference that has made for their futures, is truly amazing.”

Back in Edinburgh, it is an exciting time for One Health. This year the scientific world marked the 20th anniversary of the birth of Dolly the Sheep. Created at the University’s Roslin Institute, Dolly represented exactly the kind of revolutionary science for stem cell research that is required for many of the One Health challenges we face today. What’s more, 2016 will also see the opening of a new Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, aimed at improving human and animal well-being, food security and sustainable development. Led by Professor Geoff Simm, it aims to equip future leaders with the skills and knowledge required to meet global challenges,through a range of world-leading interdisciplinary educational and research programmes.

These activities are united in their embodiment of the University’s mission to focus on matters of global importance, and to make a meaningful contribution to the world as a whole. In doing so, it will continue to attract the brightest students and academic minds, the pioneers of their generations who will change society for the better. In the view of Professor Sir Adrian Bird, at least, there is simply no alternative.

He says: “If you are not doing internationally competitive work, one has to ask oneself what is the point? There is no such thing as nationally important science, there is only world science. If you want to make a lasting and meaningful difference that is the stage on which you have to perform.”

Explore our research further on the University’s Global Health website:

www.ed.ac.uk/global-health

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