BOZEMAN — A Montana State University-led research group studying viral spillover from bat populations to humans is one of only two teams selected for the second phase of a highly competitive research program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The program is part of the Preventing Emerging Pathogenic Threats program, or PREEMPT. It seeks to identify mechanisms that let viral threats spill over from animals to humans and to develop countermeasures to stop spillover events before they occur.

Montana State University researcher Raina Plowright handles a sample in her lab. Plowright is one of the world's leading spillover specialists, and has studied how diseases are passed between animal and human populations for years. -MSU Photo/asg
Montana State University researcher Raina Plowright is one of the world's leading spillover specialists, and has studied how diseases are passed between animal and human populations for years. -MSU Photo/asg

Disease ecologist Raina Plowright, an associate professor in the MSU College of Agriculture’s Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology, leads the project to determine how and why viruses are passed from bats to humans — and to develop potential interventions. Her project’s Phase II DARPA funding totals over $4 million and follows an initial $10 million grant awarded in late 2018. Since then, Plowright has coordinated an international team of researchers conducting field studies on bats on three continents, examining driving factors such as habitat loss and climate change.

“By researching these problems, in multiple ecological contexts, we are getting a sense of the true mechanisms that result in spillover and threaten the world with pandemics,” said Plowright.

The team includes the members of Plowright’s lab group at MSU; Aga Apple, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology in the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology; Andy Hoegh, an assistant professor of statistics in the College of Letters and Sciences' Department of Mathematical Sciences; and researchers on five continents across a variety of disciplines, including ecology, immunology, virology, statistics and mathematics. This includes faculty from Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University, Cambridge University, the University of California Los Angeles, Pennsylvania State University, Colorado State University, National Institutes of Health Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Griffith University in Australia and others. The other research team selected to move into Phase II of the program is based at the University of California Davis.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Plowright said her team’s work has even more potential.

“There is now global awareness of how spillover can lead to a catastrophic public health incident,” she said in reference to the current pandemic, which is thought to have begun with viral spillover from animals into humans. “We could never have foreseen the immense consequences of such an event, but our current pandemic comes back to spillover.”

Plowright’s team spent the first phase of the project conducting extensive field studies and data collection in Asia, Africa and Australia. They’ve also been looking to understand the factors that lead to increased contact between bat populations and humans or livestock, including habitat degradation due to land use change and seasonal variation in bats’ usual food sources due to climatic cycles, which alter bat behavior so they seek alternative shelter and food sources.

Viruses have a greater chance of spilling over into new populations, said Plowright, if the bats that carry the viruses are stressed. MSU is testing the hypothesis that when bats no longer have access to their traditional habitats or food sources, they are more likely to excrete viruses because their immune systems do not have enough energy to contain them. Couple that with increased overlap between bats, humans and livestock, and you see an increased risk for spillover, she said.

Phase II of the project will last 18 months and will focus on lab work to finish processing field samples, as well as data analysis and modeling to identify trends and develop new intervention methodology.

“A big part of this phase is multiscale modeling, trying to bring all these data together from the cellular level in a bat to the landscape level in terms of environmental stress,” said Plowright. “We’ve had a lot of success bringing the data together to look at patterns, and it’s been wonderful working with statisticians like Andy Hoegh in statistics and with other mathematicians and machine learning experts."

That modeling and further study will seek to predict when and where bats are shedding viruses that could have the greatest potential for spillover and emergence.

“DARPA is really looking for projects that can help solve wicked problems, problems that seem impossible but a problem that a group of transdisciplinary scientist can crack – and that is what we have been doing,” said Sara LaTrielle, program manager for Plowright’s international research team. “For us to be moving on to Phase II means they have confidence that we are on to something that could be really amazing.”

Plowright said the diverse experiences and strong connections between the members of the team only add to its potential for success.

“What makes our team different from most scientific teams is that we’re very integrated across multiple disciplines,” she said. “We have many experts all trying to converge their scientific methods, theories and data to understand these new pathogens and identify whether they have pandemic potential. That’s a holy grail question, nobody has done it before. That takes a lot of time, generosity and openness within the group, and it’s a process.”

- by MSU News Service -

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