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Can interacting pathogens explain disease patterns?

12 December 2007

A new study into the way in which parasites interact with each other could help predict when infectious diseases are likely to break out.

A group of scientists in the UK and the US has been studying the behaviour of infectious parasites in rabbits. The findings could lead to us being able to predict more successfully when infectious cyclical diseases in humans are likely to occur.

The team from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, University of Stirling, University of Liverpool and Penn State University, Pennsylvania, have discovered that when rabbits are infected with more than one disease at a time, the diseases can interact with each other, changing their courses and potentially resulting in a more severe infection.

Most animals including humans are infected with more than one disease at any one time.

The research findings point to the possibility that any disease which follows a natural cycle could have that cycle changed by an interaction with another disease.

Dr Joanne Lello, Cardiff School of Biosciences, said that the findings provide a new way of looking for interactions between organisms which cause disease and provides another piece in the puzzle in terms of understanding how pathogens behave.

She said: "There has been a long standing debate as to whether co-infecting organisms interact with one another or whether interactions matter in natural pathogen systems. The debate continues because these interactions are so hard to detect in nature.

"What this study has provided us with is a new method of detection. For example, when we test this method on real data, such as where we examine changes in parasitic worm numbers in rabbits, it reveals changes in seasonal patterns of one type of worm when another type is present.

"Many diseases show cycles and if interactions change these cycles then there could be wide-ranging consequences and understanding this can help us better understand pathogen patterns. For example it could help scientists to predict more clearly when parasite outbreaks may occur."

"The whole subject of co-infection biology is very exciting as it has implications for everything from theoretical biology to how we treat infectious diseases."

The study is detailed in the leading scientific journal American Naturalist.

Ends

Notes to Editors:

1. The paper "Pathogen interactions, population cycles and phase shifts" is published in The American Naturalist in January.

Cardiff School of Biosciences

The Cardiff School of Biosciences addresses the major biological questions which face health and life scientists. The major research areas of the School are: biodiversity and ecology, connective tissue biology, environmental biochemistry and microbiology, mammalian genetics, molecular enzymology and entomology, and neuroscience cell biology. The School also houses the Common Cold Centre, the world’s only centre dedicated to researching and testing new medicines for treatment of the symptoms of flu and the common cold.

Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, the University today combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s leading research universities.

Visit the University website at: www.cardiff.ac.uk

Further Information:

For further information, please contact:

Dr Joanne Lello
Cardiff School of Biosciences
Cardiff CF10 3TL
Tel: 02920 875885
Mobile: 07704418686
Email: LelloJ@cf.ac.uk

http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/biosi/research/biodiversity/staff/lello.html

Lowri Jones
Public Relations Office
Cardiff University
T 02920 870 995
E: joneslc3@cardiff.ac.uk