Our scientists are putting the spotlight on the immune response to zoonotic infections in the natural host and spillover species. They are investigating how these host-pathogen interactions may impact how diseases are diagnosed and treated in the future.

Emerging infectious diseases

Zoonotic viruses are those that emerge from wildlife and domesticated animals to pose a serious threat to human health. In many cases mouse models have improved our understanding of the human immune response to viral infection however, when dealing with emerging zoonotic diseases, there are concerns they may be of limited use. This is particularly the case when the model fails to accurately reproduce the disease status that is seen in the natural animal reservoir, the transmission species or human host.

Bats have been identified as the source of the zoonotic Hendra virus.

Studying the immune response to zoonotic infections in the natural host and spillover species will not only lead to a greater understanding of how these infections result in different disease and immune responses but also offer important insights into the evolution of mammalian immune systems.

Now, more than ever, there is a greater risk of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) being transmitted to people from wild and domesticated animals. Several factors contribute to this, including the recent growth and geographic expansion of human populations, the intensification of agriculture, and the disruption of habitats owing to climate change and deforestation. In addition, increased global travel means that there is a greater likelihood that EIDs will rapidly spread.

Over the past three decades the incidence of EIDs has risen in humans, with around 70 per cent being zoonotic in nature (for example SARS and Hendra virus, both of which are derived from bats), and most being caused by viruses and drug-resistant pathogens, such as mycobacteria.

Containment of these EID outbreaks has often been difficult owing to their unpredictability and the absence of effective control measures, such as vaccines and antiviral therapeutics. There is also a lack of essential knowledge of the immune responses to zoonotic viruses, particularly those that offer protection against disease.

With the international emphasis on a 'One Health' approach, which combines research from the medical, veterinarian and environmental fields, researchers are turning to the use of natural host species for a greater understanding of the immunological basis of emerging zoonotic disease.

Increasingly, non-laboratory animals, such as bats, chickens and ferrets, are being used for the study of host–pathogen relationships and immune responses to EIDs. This new approach, based on the One Health concept, together with the adoption of new genomic information and genome-editing technologies, will allow the identification of strategies to prevent and minimise the impact of EIDs and enhance our preparedness for potential pandemics.

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