The viruses that cause COVID-19, AIDS, Ebola, and many other infectious diseases were all transmitted from animals to humans. In a new paper, experts are calling for biomedical research to return to the wild to more effectively protect humans from deadly viruses.
Scientists from more than 10 universities and institutions have outlined how biomedical research could be refined with a broader dataset of diverse species and their environment.
For example, understanding how the immune system works in bats and other animals that carry coronaviruses could be very useful for developing treatments and vaccinations.
Study lead author Dr. Andrew Flies is an expert in the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania.
“The very first vaccine arose from observing people interacting with animals in a real world environment. Specifically, milkmaids who acquired a mild cowpox infection from cows were protected from the deadly smallpox. That observation led to the idea of inoculating people with non-lethal viruses to protect them from deadly viruses. This type of discovery can only be made by studying new species in variable environments,” explained Dr. Flies.
While most biomedical research is currently focused on mouse models in a lab, expanding studies to new species could lead to groundbreaking discoveries. For example, an important new class of antibodies was found in camels.
“We are really excited to see how our initial group discussions held at the first Australian Wild and Comparative Immunology (WACI) workshop led to publishing a Perspective article in a world leading journal,” said study co-author Dr. Jerome Le Nours.
“If we want to evolve our understanding of the immune system, and potentially get ahead of any future pandemics, the research community needs to expand,” said study co-author Professor Julie Old. “We need to broaden our scope, and bring new species and new environments into the research paradigm.”
Professor Alison Venn said new technology has broken down research barriers to integrating new species and environments into the research cycle.
“Proactive investment in wild immunology can stimulate discoveries with real-world applications for human and veterinary medicine and conservation,” said Professor Venn. “It could help us prepare for the next pandemic.”
The study is published in the journal Science.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer