MIDAS touch: New Fred Hutch center to play key role in global disease response

Top award grants $12.5 million over five years to model and track pathogens from polio to Ebola
Ebola workers
Dr. Jordan Tappero, a staff worker for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gets help from a member of the group Doctors Without Borders as he dons protective gear amid the Ebola outbreak in Monrovia, Liberia. Fred Hutch scientists will help advise government policy for this outbreak and others through the new MIDAS Center of Excellence, one of only three in the nation. Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are on the cutting edge of U.S. analysis and response to infectious disease outbreaks around the globe thanks to a new five-year, $12.5 million award that designates the Seattle campus as a MIDAS Center of Excellence.

Fred Hutch biostatistician and epidemiologist Dr. M. Elizabeth Halloran will head the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study center, one of only three such sites across the nation. The centers use computational and mathematical models to advise the U.S. government about the spread of diseases including polio, dengue fever, tuberculosis, influenza – and most recently, Ebola.

“This is a big deal,” said Halloran, who received notice of the award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIGMS, on Sept. 12. “We have a big responsibility for leadership in this MIDAS group.”

Under terms of the award, the new MIDAS center will receive $2.5 million a year for the next five years to study and track the dynamics of the spread of pathogens in the U.S. and around the world. The work includes identification and surveillance of infectious diseases, analysis of the effectiveness and consequences of interventions – and advice to the world leaders who put those policies in place.

The Fred Hutch scientists will collaborate with researchers at seven other academic sites across the country -- the University of Washington, Northeastern University, the University of Florida, the University of Michigan, Duke University, Emory University and the University of Georgia.

The new center will be coordinated through the Center for Statistics and Quantitative Infectious Diseases, or CSQUID, at Fred Hutch. The proposal includes plans for four cutting-edge research projects that address the most important problems facing public health regarding a host of diseases, said Halloran, a member in the Fred Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease and Public Health Sciences divisions. She’s also a professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington.

Fred Hutch has been part of a network of MIDAS groups for a decade, but a center designation elevates the site to a new level. Already, Halloran and other MIDAS scientists have been holding weekly meetings about the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, reporting the results of disease modeling that predicts the epidemic will continue to surge well past World Health Organization expectations.

“Over the last 10 years, the MIDAS investigators at Fred Hutchinson have studied the dynamics of infectious diseases to provide useful new information on how infectious agents are spreading and how to contain them in real time, both nationally and abroad,” said Dr. Irene Eckstrand, NIGMS scientific officer for the MIDAS program. “The recent emergence and spread of Ebola, enteroviruses, pertussis, dengue and other infectious disease threats underscores the importance of this multi-national MIDAS Center of Excellence as we seek to understand the dynamics of these diseases and how to stop them.”

The Seattle site joins MIDAS centers housed at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Pittsburgh.

Halloran said it’s been a longtime goal to bring a MIDAS center to Seattle. “I wanted to build a center and be the head of a center,” she said.

Halloran has done an exceptional job of bringing together people who are experts in their fields, said Dr. Trevor Bedford, an expert in seasonal flu viruses who is an assistant member in the Fred Hutch VIDD and PHS divisions. He’ll be co-lead on one of the research projects in the new MIDAS center.

“These infectious disease outbreaks demand very quick response,” Bedford said.

In addition to disease surveillance and modeling, the MIDAS center is an important hub for training, outreach and diversity. The annual Summer Institute in Statistics and Modeling in Infectious Diseases attracts top scientists as teachers – and promising scholars as students. It will be held at the University of Washington for the seventh straight year in 2015, said Halloran, who directs the program.

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JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and msnbc.com. Prior to that she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at jaleccia@fredhutch.org

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