UGA, Tech Partnership Receives Funding From CDC – WGAU

The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, in partnership with the State Department of Public Health, have been awarded a five-year, $17 million collaborative agreement by the CDC that will fund the establishment of a center of excellence in pathogen genomics. According to the UGA, the center will be designed to strengthen the public health response to infectious disease threats and to support the development of the public health workforce.

By Lauren Baggett, UGA Media Relations…

The award is part of a $90 million CDC investment to build a network of centers across five states. Each Pathogen Genomics Center of Excellence (PGCoE) consists of a health department and one or more academic institutions.

The Georgia Department of Public Health will provide overall leadership and prioritization of the center’s efforts. UGA will lead efforts to translate new discoveries into actionable data and interventions. GTRI will lead the operations and implementation arm of the Georgia-based center.

Overall, this work will focus on bringing innovations from academia to the United States public health service.

“We’re really trying to learn about the epidemiology of outbreaks, those population-scale processes that affect the spread of disease. Transmission patterns that are really hard to observe,” said Justin Bahl, associate professor with joint appointments at UGA’s College of Public Health and College of Veterinary Medicine. Bahl will lead the project at UGA.

Molecular epidemiology uses genomic data to learn how pathogens like the SARS-CoV-2 virus move and infect humans within populations. This work allows scientists to trace the origins of a virus strain and track its spread as it moves from place to place.

Bahl says adding pathogen genomic data to traditional epidemiological surveillance could dramatically strengthen the ability of public health workers to prevent and contain local outbreaks.

“We will be able to work closely with these health authorities and link the genetic data of the pathogens to the actual population characteristics. That provides information for these public health practitioners to guide their interventions,” he said.

Researchers from GTRI will support the center’s data management, data analytics and information security requirements to achieve the goal of providing real-time disease information to local and state-level healthcare organizations.

“We want to help public health departments stay ahead of pathogen trends,” said Rebecca Hutchins, chief engineer at GTRI’s Advanced Concepts Laboratory. “With COVID-19, we had to build new genome sequencing and data analysis capabilities. In future infectious disease outbreaks, this center will allow us to move from a reactive mode – reacting to what the virus is doing – to a more proactive mode aimed at taking preventative measures quickly.”

By facilitating ongoing collaboration, the network will help ensure that academic researchers, public health agencies and other systems involved in a pandemic response have systems in place to share critical information and apply consistent data collection techniques. Sample collection and sequencing innovations developed at the center are shared with other centers and public health agencies nationwide.

“The true measure of success for the Georgia-based Pathogen Genomics Center of Excellence will be the enhanced abilities of public health officials across the United States to prevent and respond to infectious disease outbreaks,” said Hutchins.

“We have a very strong infectious disease research community here at UGA, particularly in modeling pathogen transmission, and a lot of experience integrating different types of data,” said Bahl. “There probably aren’t many other places that have as much expertise as here.”

This work builds on the innovative tools developed by UGA’s interdisciplinary infectious disease research centers, including the Center for Vaccines and Immunology, the Center for Influenza Disease Emergence Research, and the Center for Ecology of Infectious Diseases.

“And now we have this center that’s focused on taking all this wealth of information that we’ve generated and these new approaches and methods and applying them at the population level to inform the public health response,” Bahl said .

This project to set up the Center for Applied Pathogen Epidemiology and Outbreak Response is the university’s fourth major funding investment in the past five years.

Bahl is optimistic that this investment in pathogen genomics will create more avenues for data sharing between scientists and practitioners and improve genomic surveillance nationwide.

“We are active and trying to learn more, translate more into the public health labs, and collectively be better prepared to respond to these emerging threats,” Bahl said. “This investment is about strengthening partnerships with public health. We are part of that effort and building public health across the board.”

Team members include Tonia Parrott from the Georgia Department of Public Health, and Amy Winter, Erin Lipp, Travis Glenn, Magdy Alabady, Liang Liu, Pej Rohani, Susan Sanchez, Mandev Gill, and John Drake from UGA. They will be joined by Rebecca Hutchins and True Merrill at GTRI. The network across Georgia also includes researchers from Emory University, Georgia State University and Augusta University Medical College of Georgia.