NSF awards $12.5 million to Georgetown University to establish emerging virus research institute

News — WASHINGTON (August 10, 2022) – The National Science Foundation has awarded Georgetown University $12.5 million to lead a global team of scientists in creating a collaborative institute designed to advance research and education around of viral emergence – the process by which viruses pass from animals to humans.

The Verena (Viral Emergence Research Initiative) Biology Integration Institute, based at the Center for Global Health Science and Security in Georgetown, aims to advance an interdisciplinary research agenda that targets important sources of emerging infectious diseases. The collaboration will also train scientists at all stages of their careers in host-virus network science, as well as basic scientific skills in data fluency and border crossing, creating the next generation of researchers focused on viral emergence.

“The days of ‘quiet periods’ between outbreaks are over – from this point on we are heading from Covid-19 straight into monkeypox, into the next public health crisis,” says Georgetown assistant professor Colin Carlson, PhD, director of the Institute and co-founder of Verena. “Our goal is to create the data and tools we need to know what’s coming tomorrow and maybe, in fact, be ready next time.”

Carlson and four other co-investigators will lead the institute’s thematic workstreams, including:

  • Carlson – “Transmission and emergence of ecological dynamics”;
  • Daniel Becker, PhD, University of Oklahoma – “The Coevolution of Host Immunity and the Global Virome;”
  • Stephanie Seifert, PhD, Washington State University – “Host and virus-omics and compatibility rules; ” and,
  • Sadie Ryan, PhD, University of Florida – “Global change and the emergence of new host-virus interactions.”

Cynthia Wei, PhD, associate professor at the Walsh School of Foreign Service in Georgetown, will lead the institute in training and education. The institute also includes 9 additional senior researchers.

In the first five years, the NSF-funded institute will provide new insights into the evolution of bats’ unique immune systems and, with additional exploratory work on disease-carrying mosquitoes, lay the groundwork for applying innovative methods to vertebrates and invertebrates. global virome. Additionally, the predictive work undertaken by the team will drive great advances in machine learning and computational biology. The open data infrastructure being developed, including a universal public database for wildlife disease surveillance, will broaden the horizons for quantitative work on broader disease ecology.

“We started developing our approach six months before the pandemic hit: we’re building datasets, conducting experiments, and applying artificial intelligence in concert to understand the rules of cross-species transmission,” says Carlson. “Three years later, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to step up and tackle even tougher issues and hopefully begin to have a real impact on global health and conservation.”

Training scientists in the interdisciplinary methods used by the team will also be an important part of the overall project, with more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students trained in the first five years.

“Students will have the chance to connect and learn from a sharp, diverse and dynamic group of researchers, as well as unique opportunities to engage in Verena research,” says Wei of Georgetown, training manager and education. “These experiments will open an exciting window into the process of collaborative, interdisciplinary and actionable science. They will also offer students the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge findings on viral emergence.

These training opportunities are in addition to Georgetown’s already extensive work in pandemic prevention and preparedness, including the work of the Center for Global Health Science & Security (GHSS) in this space.

“This is an incredibly exciting award and we anticipate the work will transform the entire field,” said GHSS Director Rebecca Katz, PhD, who is also chair of Verena’s science and policy advisory board.


The co-researchers declare that they have no personal financial interest related to the work of the Institute.

National Science Foundation “BII: Predicting the Global Host Virus Network from Molecular Basis” – (#2213854)

About Georgetown University Medical Center

As a leading academic health and science center, Georgetown University Medical Center synergistically provides excellence in education — training doctors, nurses, health administrators and other health professionals, as well as biomedical scientists — and cutting-edge interdisciplinary research collaborationimproving our basic science and translational biomedical research capabilities to improve human health. Patient care, clinical research and education are conducted with our academic health system partner, MedStar Health. GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on social justice and a dedication to the Catholic and Jesuit principle of personalized cura — or “whole person care”. GUMC includes the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Health, Biomedical Higher Education, and Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. Designated by the Carnegie Foundation as a doctoral university with “very high research activity,” Georgetown is home to a Clinical and Translational Sciences Award from the National Institutes of Health and a Comprehensive Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute. Connect with GUMC on Facebook (Facebook.com/GUMCUpdate) and on Twitter (@gumedcenter).

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