Partnership Will Create Computer Infrastructure to Support Global Malaria Project

A global partnership has set its sights on nothing less than making malaria an implacable enemy that predates the human race nothing more than a bad memory. VECNet, the Vector Ecology and Control Network, aims to get there by combining and supporting the ingenuity of researchers, engineers, public health officials, national decision makers and funding agencies. The idea is to create a computer model that allows malaria-battling stakeholders to join efforts.

VECNet is about bringing order out of chaos, says Tom Burkot, VECNets principal investigator and professor and tropical leader at James Cook University, Australia. The challenge we have is that were 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.

VECNet will work, Burkot explains, by creating a single tool that enables stakeholders to test out their ideas in a vast, worldwide simulation of the disease. Users will be able to try out potential solutions, and see what works best and when. Better, they will be able to combine their ideas to create results that are more than the sum of their parts.

Despite intense efforts, the gold standard for disease control a highly effective vaccine against malaria doesnt yet exist. While the standard treatment drug, artemisinin, is largely effective, more choices would be useful, for when the microscopic Plasmodium parasite develops resistance.

But focusing only on those goals, as worthy as they are, would miss an important point. The tools for eradicating malaria may already be in our hands. Larvicides can kill malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes before they take flight. Insecticide-treated bed nets and spraying building interiors can keep the insects away from people when theyre most vulnerable. And artemisinin is still, usually, effective.

The question is, how well are we using the current malaria-fighting measures? Are they coming at the right time and in the right place? Are we using them as cost-effectively as we can? And, could tweaking one of the old standbys give us a bump far out of proportion to its cost?

The stakes are high: Over 600,000 deaths per year. More than 200 million people falling desperately ill. The third leading cause of child death worldwide in Africa, it kills one child every minute. And the disease is spreading global climate change, human migration and land use changes all play a role in expanding its geographic footprint.

In order to make the vision of VECNets simulator a reality, a computer system machines, software, and databases must be created. Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) and the University of Notre Dame will develop this VECNet Cyber-Infrastructure over the next year.

The larger VECNet community has been at it for over three years now, assembling some of the necessary models and data, says Nathan Stone, VECNet principal investigator at PSC. This years challenge is all about integration and execution like assembling a race car with parts from two Humvees and a bus so that any cabbie could use it to win the Indy 500.

What were attempting to do with the VECNet project is to create a way to simplify sifting through the data to allow less technologically sophisticated users to contribute, Burkot adds. The system, a web-based tool that will be accessible and usable without advanced computer or modeling training, will be operational, with VECNet stakeholders beginning to learn how to use it, at the end of the current one-year grant.

Using the system, researchers could test how a newly identified strain of insecticide-resistant malaria-carrying mosquitos is likely to spread and affect disease prevalence. In-country public health officers could figure out whether a $100,000 eradication grant would be most effective if spent on larvicides, insecticide-treated bed netting or indoor spraying. 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 VECNet 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, principal investigator 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 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 its a good idea to take an umbrella but it cant guarantee it will rain. Similarly, VECNet stakeholders will need to learn how best to use the systems predictions.

Meeting the very different needs of users from the research, private and public spheres will also be important. Researchers will need to see the project as built on solid scientific footing with transparency as a chief goal. Corporate researchers will need to have their proprietary ideas guarded so they can reap the fruits of their R&D labors. And government officials will need answers that are both economically feasible and politically doable in the context of their own systems of governance.

Reaching this goal will be a challenge but doing so will pay off in saving hundreds of thousands of human lives and untold misery, Stone says.

VECNet brings together an unprecedented variety of stakeholders: clinical, environmental and entomological researchers; public policy makers; funding agencies and technical experts, he says. The 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.

Source: Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center