Duke Disease Detectors

In April 2016, Buzz by Cameron Walker

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What if we’d been able to prevent the spread of the Ebola and the Zika viruses—using lemurs?

Duke is working on it.

Six in 10 infectious diseases are transmissible by animals, according to the CDC. Wildlife, pets, bugs and meat are responsible for diseases ranging from Zika to the Bubonic plague (yikes!).

But Duke University-led researchers are using lemurs to help identify these new diseases before they spread to humans.

Scientists with the Duke Lemur Center applied a cutting-edge technique to scan the blood of threatened lemur populations in the Madagascan rainforest. They compared the genetic material to a database of known DNA sequences and were left with several new diseases.

Also happening:

Will Eward, an orthopedic cancer surgeon at Duke Health and a practicing veterinarian was tired of watching his canine patients die of cancer, so he went to medical school to learn how to beat it.

Now, he and other scientists from the Duke Cancer Institute and the College of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State University have formed the Consortium for Comparative Canine Oncology.

Researchers will use an approach called “comparative oncology,” studying dogs and human cancer patients simultaneously.

Dogs make ideal research animals; they are closer to human size than mice, their cancer grows quickly, and individual dog breeds share genetic markers like a family would. However, the dogs Eward studies are pets, not “lab rats.” Both his veterinary clinic and the NC State veterinary school offer clinical trials.

Duke’s been busy. Researchers are also honing in on ways to treat respiratory illnesses more effectively without over-prescribing antibiotics.

A team of researchers at Duke Health developed a blood test that looks at a patient’s genes to determine the cause of the infection. The test will work in as quickly as an hour.

Until now, it was difficult to tell whether a patient’s symptoms were caused by a virus or bacteria. As a result, about 75 percent of patients ended up on antibiotics; however, the majority likely had viral infections, which the medicine does not treat.

Over prescribing leads to antibiotic resistance, which the World Health Organization calls “one of the biggest threats to global health today.” Drug-resistant bacteria kill at least 23,000 U.S. citizens each year, says the Centers for Disease Control.

The research could also help create effective anti-viral treatments.

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