For Scott Dessain, MD, PhD, traveling to northeastern India during a pandemic made perfect sense.
The professor with Lankenau Institute for Medical Research (LIMR), part of Main Line Health, is recognized for his expertise in using monoclonal antibodies to detect and treat infectious diseases. And the city of Shillong is in the type of zone where scientists have determined pandemics are most likely to originate. Regions where people increasingly interact with wildlife amid rapidly shifting environments increase the risk of animal-to-human infection.
Dessain was invited by Dr. Sandra Albert, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPI) Shillong, to speak on the detection of infectious diseases. Ultimately, the goal is for them to be able to conduct such work independently—and be able to alert global health officials if they uncover a new pandemic threat.
“It’s a great area for research with talented people, but they need facilities,” Dessain says. “I’m hoping to work with the team there to help them get the tools they need.”
Epidemiologists have mapped out parts of the world, including India as well as areas of Europe, Asia and Australia, that are vulnerable to animal-to-human infections. These maps, such as those published in studies published by Nature and Nature Communications, led Dessain to consider visiting India.
“Epidemiologists are driven by studying patterns and asking questions such as how are people and animals coming into contact that could lead to infection,” Dessain says. “Climate change, urbanization, deforestation and poverty all drive interaction between humans and wild animals that may result in spillover infections which subsequently spread among humans. Northeastern India is particularly vulnerable.”
George Prendergast, president and CEO of LIMR, says Dessain’s visit fits in with the Institute’s philosophy of helping humanity on a broad scale.
“Scott is a terrific ambassador for us,” Prendergast says. “We always talk about punching above our weight. This is a way to extend the reach of our research globally. His work is geared toward public health and giving a voice to the medical needs of people who might otherwise not have one. However, clearly, we all benefit. COVID-19 has proven that an infection starting on the other side of the world can affect the entire planet.”
Cloning antibodies can be very expensive, Dessain says, but his research laboratory at LIMR has developed fast and affordable technologies that are simple to use in low-resource settings.
Dessain discovered communicating across cultures with the Shillong institute staff and students to be easier than he imagined.
“It may seem like we were crossing cultures, but we’re really not because medical doctors and public health researchers are all cut from the same cloth,” Dessain says.
This is not the first time Dessain’s work has been on an international stage. Antibodies cloned by his lab in 2020 have been used to standardize the quality and potency of the polio vaccine dose, easing the way for wider distribution.
According to the World Health Organization, cases of the formerly widespread disease have decreased by over 99% since 1988, from an estimated more than 350,000 cases to 22 reported cases in 2017. However, as long as a single child remains infected with poliovirus, the poliovirus can easily be imported into a polio-free country and spread rapidly among unimmunized populations. Failure to eradicate polio could, within 10 years of spreading, cause as many as 200,000 new cases annually worldwide.