Date Published: 4 October 2006
New method to track disease could save lives - Australia
Innovative research that harnesses maths and biology could help predict which infectious strains of disease have the potential to go global and become epidemics.
Dr Andrew Francis, from the University of Western Sydney and Dr Mark Tanaka, from the University of New South Wales, have designed a model for tracking tuberculosis (TB) infections.
The research, funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, appears this week in the prestigious international journal, "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America".
Dr Tanaka, from UNSW, says the technique is unique.
The researchers applied their technique to four published sets of TB data. Their analysis identified the oldest and most common strains of TB, but according to Dr Francis, it also highlighted younger strains that are infecting at a much faster rate.
Catching a disease outbreak early could mean the difference between a few infections and an epidemic.
However, modern science delivers so much information it's often difficult to spot the rapidly spreading strains among the sea of statistics.
Tuberculosis is primarily an illness of the respiratory system, and is spread by coughing and sneezing. Every year about 1.7 million people die from the disease. While the disease is curable, drug resistant strains have emerged and are taking hold in some countries.
Dr Tanaka says tracking TB has never before been more critical but current methods fall short.
Dr Francis says the new method helps to fill in the blanks about TB transmissions.
Dr Tanaka says the relative age of a strain can be measured by counting the number of mutation events it has undergone and comparing it to others in the sample.
A strain which can infect people quickly is dangerous. It has the potential to spread widely, overwhelm a health service and ultimately kill thousands.
The technique can be used to track drug resistant strains of TB and, with further research, may be adapted to analyse data from other similar diseases.
There are also plans to provide a web based version of the technique allowing health authorities to easily input data which is automatically analysed.
Dr Andrew Francis is a mathematician and senior lecturer in School of
Computing and Mathematics the University of Western Sydney.
Source: University of Western Sydney, Australia.