Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) and the University of Notre Dame have received up to $1.6 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a system of computers and software for the Vector Ecology and Control Network (VECNet), an international consortium to eradicate malaria. The new VECNet Cyber-Infrastructure Project (CI) will support VECNet’s effort to unite research, industrial and public policy efforts to attack one of the worst diseases in the developing world in more effective, economical ways.
“VECNet is about bringing order out of chaos,” says Tom Burkot, VECNet’s principal investigator and professor and tropical leader at James Cook University, Australia. “The challenge we have is that we’re trying to control and eliminate malaria in a world in which, for example, there are 40 or 50 dominant mosquito species that are important for its spread.” The CI project, he adds, is intended to decrease the complexity of engaging in the problem so that malaria researchers, national malaria control officials, product developers, and policy makers can all contribute to solutions.
“What we’re attempting to do with the CI project is to create a way of simplifying sifting through the data to allow less technologically sophisticated users to contribute,” Burkot says.
Malaria-fighting measures including mosquito-killing insecticides and bed nets, as well as treatment with malaria drugs, have helped bring the number of deaths from malaria down 40 percent over the last four years. Still, the disease is far from being eradicated, and often the hardest hit countries have trouble affording even basic measures. Even a partial success in controlling malaria could save many of the over 600,000 lives lost to the disease annually, in addition to keeping more than 200 million people from falling ill, according to World Health Organization figures.
“In the CI, VECNet brings together an unprecedented variety of stakeholders: clinical, environmental and entomological researchers; public policy makers; funding agencies and technical experts,” says Nathan Stone, principle investigator of the CI project at PSC. “The CI team is pleased to provide the infrastructural venue to guide stake-holders through a common, web interface by which all parties may advance the common cause of malaria eradication.”
For example, researchers could test how a newly identified strain of insecticide resistance in malaria-carrying mosquitos is likely to spread and affect disease prevalence. Public health officers in Senegal could figure out whether a $100,000 eradication grant would be most effective if spent on larvicides, insecticide-treated bed netting or indoor residual spraying with insecticides. Industrial developers of mosquito control interventions and international funding agencies could make better decisions about how best to invest in new products and programs.
“The CI project will host data archives about the transmission of malaria and computer models that predict the effects of different interventions on the course and spread of the disease,” says Gregory Madey, principle investigator of the CI project at Notre Dame. “By jointly designing, developing and deploying these computational resources, Notre Dame and PSC will support the VECNet consortium in its goal to inform decision makers and support the eradication of malaria from the planet.”
Nothing like the VECNet CI project exists in public health. The closest parallel is that of weather forecasting — which offers some lessons for what VECNet must accomplish. For one thing, vector control experts will need to enact a common system of data formatting, reporting procedures and a number of other compatibility steps that exist in weather reporting but not public health. Also, a weather report can tell you whether it’s a good idea to take an umbrella; it can’t guarantee it will rain. Similarly, VECNet stakeholders will need to learn how best to use the system’s predictions.
The yearlong contract from the Gates Foundation will take VECNet’s CI project from the idea stage to the point of beginning to teach experts how to make use of it.
About PSC: Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (http://www.psc.edu) is a joint effort of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh together with Westinghouse Electric Company. Established in 1986, PSC is supported by several federal agencies, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and private industry, and is a major partner in the National Science Foundation XSEDE program.
About the University of Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame (UND), founded in 1842, is an independent research university located adjacent to the city of South Bend, Indiana. Work on the VECNet CI project will be performed jointly by scientists and developers from UND’s Center for Research Computing, Department of Biological Sciences, Department of Computer Science & Engineering and the Hesburgh Library.
About James Cook University: One of the world's leading institutions focusing on the tropics, Australia's James Cook University is surrounded by the spectacular ecosystems of the rainforests of the Wet tropics, the dry savannahs, and the iconic Great Barrier Reef. Ranked in the top four percent of the world's tertiary institutions by the respected Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, James Cook University is dedicated to creating a brighter future for life in the tropics world-wide, through graduates and discoveries that make a difference.