ithree institute Director Professor Ian Charles.
The relaunch of the Institute for the Biotechnology of Infectious Diseases (IBID) at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) as the ithree institute is implementing a ‘new systems biology approach’ that seeks to use a more holistic approach to understanding diseases.
Building on the potential brought about by the enormous amount of DNA sequencing information generated for a range of organisms in recent years, the ithree institute is able to make more interesting and relevant models, based on the genome-level rather than the individual gene level, that help show how infectious diseases work.
The institute was launched by UTS in November 2010 with Professor Ian Charles as Director. Professor Charles says that UTS presented a great opportunity for the ithree institute, as it was already strongly committed to investing in the biotechnology of infectious diseases.
“It’s a serious investment in terms of money and personnel and in the people we have brought in to help us get the institute under way,” Prof. Charles says. “We’ve got a fantastic team, with some top-level support from scientists in Australia and around the world, plus Dr Jim Peacock, a former Chief Scientist of Australia, has kindly agreed to chair our scientific advisory board.”
The One Health model.
Refocusing the ithree institute
“The ithree institute is really the refocusing of an existing institute,” Prof. Charles says. “IBID had a perfectly good approach and was spun out from a parasitology background. It employed the traditional way of looking at infectious diseases, breaking down the research groups into discipline-based activities with groups working on parasitology, bacteriology and virology.”
Prof. Charles sought to change this method through a more holistic approach that he refers to as the ‘new systems biology approach’.
“Over the last 10 years, as DNA sequencing has become cheaper and cheaper to do, more and more genomes have been sequenced and that has generated a vast amount of data that allows us to build more interesting models,” Prof. Charles says. “The more we look at the way pathogens interact with our cells, the more we can examine whether there any underlying common mechanisms that we can understand. So rather than having these individuals discipline-based approaches, the systems biology approach tends to make a more holistic argument, but we are actually all working on the same big question that is how pathogens interact with cells. This approach seeks to break down the barriers between the individual discipline-based approaches so that the scientists talk to each other more about common mechanisms or common themes that might be important in understanding infectious diseases.”
“China has a vast human resource and very skilled scientists, and the nation is just starting to apply this resource to the areas that we are most interested in – genome-based science”
Another goal for Prof. Charles is to unite the group at the institute into an understanding of the ‘One Health’ model.
“We can no longer regard ourselves as being separate in terms of analysing what happens in an infectious disease situation,” he says. “We have to take into account the larger picture – that is, the organisms that affect you or me or our animals we use for food or plants we use for food or the environment itself are all linked in some way. If we really are to understand what is happening to us with respect to infectious diseases, we need to understand what is happening with those viruses, bacteria and parasites and how they live and survive in the whole community, particularly our food plants and animals.”
Prof. Charles calls on the need to examine an interlinking circle of how organisms can be transmitted from one environment, such as the soil, from animals, then back to back to humans. “It is very important that we take the larger view of the ‘One health’ model,” he says.
As global warming has an impact, Prof. Charles believes that disease patterns across the world will change as a consequence of new environments in different parts of the world, changing the way that pathogens live in that new environment.
ithree institute Director Professor Ian Charles (left)
with former Chief Scientist of Australia
and Professor Vicki Sara UTS Chancellor.
Plans for international collaboration
“One of our goals is to be collaborative in the way that we work,” Prof. Charles says. “You can find insights to any problems by interacting with other scientists. There are lots of brilliant scientists around the world and we want to be international in our collaboration. While there are many brilliant scientists around Australia, we look forward to interaction with scientists from overseas who will supply skills and insights that might strengthen our arguments and make our science better.” Prof. Charles is also a seasoned entrepreneur, having previously spun out a successful biotech company. “We are also seeking to commercialize the output of our scientific progress, and will be actively seeking to establish collaborations with industry” he says.
Prof. Charles speaks very highly of his experience working alongside visiting scientists from China and working as a supervisor to Chinese PhD students.
“Very often these brilliant Chinese scientists work with other scientists in the West, and they regularly return to China and do brilliant things there,” Prof. Charles says. “China has a vast human resource and very skilled scientists, and the nation is just starting to apply this resource to the areas that we are most interested in, which is genome-based science.
“China has now made a big investment in Shenzhen called the Beijing Genome Institute (BGI), which is China’s premier genome sequencing institute. It would be a fantastic group for us to collaborate with in terms of their ability and their farsightedness in planning such world-leading facilities. Shenzhen is its main site, but it is also setting up another site in Hong Kong.
“It would be great if we could do some work with them on pathogens that are relevant to us all in terms of human health.”
Contact: Professor Ian Charles
Director, ithree institute