In an article published today in Science, a multidisciplinary research team from more
than 10 universities and research institutes outlines how integrating a more diverse
set of species and environments could enhance the biomedical research cycle.
The viruses that cause COVID-19, AIDS, Ebola, and rabies – among others – all
made the lethal jump from wildlife into humans. Understanding how the immune
system works in animals that live with coronaviruses in a natural environment, such
as bats, can give us direction for developing treatments and vaccines to protect
humans from viruses.
Lead author, Dr Andrew Flies from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the
University of Tasmania, says this is not a new concept.
“The very first vaccine arose from observing people interacting with animals in a realworld
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
Modern research relies heavily on mouse experiments in laboratory settings, which
limits the scope for this type of ground-breaking discovery. For example, a new class
of antibodies, often referred to as nanobodies, was discovered in camels. Easier and
faster to make than traditional antibodies used in biomedicine, camel-derived
nanobodies are playing an import role in biomedical research, including the global
COVID-19 response. This shows how stepping out of the lab and studying new
species can yield large long-term payoffs.
“We are really excited to see how our initial group discussions held at the first
Australian Wild and Comparative Immunology (WACI) workshop
leading journal”, said co-author Dr Jerome Le Nours, from the Biomedicine
Discovery Institute at Monash University, who was co-organiser of the WACI
“There are many excellent wildlife and disease ecologists, veterinarian scientists and
immunologists in Australia, and beyond. We hope that our contribution will inspire
them to seek mutually beneficial, inter-disciplinary collaboration” said Associate
Professor Anne Peters, Monash University, co-author and consortium collaborator.
WACI Consortium collaborator and co-author, Associate Professor Julie Old from
Western Sydney University, said it’s important for immunology research to include
more diverse species. “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. We need to broaden our scope, and bring new species and new
environments into the research paradigm.”
”Realising wild immunology needs initiatives like the WACI Consortium that harness
the wide expertise of scientists and diverse technologies within individual areas’ says
Associate Professor Michelle Power from Macquarie University. “The risks of
emerging infectious diseases are not going away. We need new ideas, new tools
and dynamic collaboration to address them”.
Director of the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, Distinguished 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. It could help us
prepare for the next pandemic.”
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