1:01am

Fri June 8, 2012
Science

'Eliminate Dengue' Team Has A Deep (Lab) Bench

Originally published on Mon June 11, 2012 1:03 pm

Second of a two-part series. Read Part 1

Every profession has its symbols of success. For opera singers, it's performing at La Scala or the Met. For mountain climbers it's making it to the top of Everest. For scientists, if you get two papers published in the same issue of a prestigious journal like Nature, you're hot.

So when an Australian named Scott O'Neill had two papers published in Nature last year describing his big idea for combating a disease called dengue, the world took notice. O'Neill is a medical entomologist and dean of the faculty of science at Monash University in Melbourne.

"We were getting bombarded by people around the world, from different governments, wanting us to come work in their countries because people are so desperate for something to try and stop dengue," says O'Neill.

Dengue is nasty. It's transmitted by a mosquito and can be a deadly disease. But even if it doesn't kill you, it knocks you out with a week or more of high fever and a pounding headache. Billions of people around the world are at risk for getting dengue if they get bitten by a mosquito carrying the dengue virus.

O'Neill's big idea for stopping dengue didn't involve a vaccine or a medicine. Instead, it involved attacking the mosquito that transmits the disease.

There are two parts to the idea. First, find a way to treat mosquitoes in the lab so they could no longer transmit dengue. That took him more than a decade to figure out. And five years ago, O'Neill finally managed to do it.

Next, release those dengue-proof mosquitoes and show that they will not only survive outside the lab but actually drive out the native population of mosquitoes that can transmit dengue. That's what O'Neill showed in those two Nature papers last year.

Now, I say O'Neill has done this, but that's misleading, because science is now a team sport. "We don't work in isolation in any projects in science these days," he says. "The days of having someone beavering away by themselves in the backroom have long gone, I think. So we're working in large teams always."

O'Neill's team is also spread around the world — he has collaborators in the United States, Brazil, Vietnam and Thailand, and in the tiny town of Babinda in northeastern Australia, where I went to visit.

Babinda's main claim to fame is winning the Golden Gumboot. A gumboot is the Australian term for a waterproof boot, what the Brits call a Wellington. The Golden Gumboot is a tongue-in-cheek award given each year to the Australian town that gets the most rain.

O'Neill's team here drives through the community in a minivan, releasing lab-reared mosquitoes. Martin Durkan is on the mosquito release team. When his day starts, there are dozens of small plastic containers in the back of the van, each with about two dozen of O'Neill's mosquitoes. I watch as he drives up to a house, jumps out, walks over to the front yard, and pries the lid off the container. "And away they go," he says. "The little angels are flying."

The Challenge Of Managing Science

These little angels are the key to combating dengue. The mosquitoes native to Babinda can transmit dengue. Scott's little angels can't. If the angels can take over from the natives, then in theory there will be no more dengue in Babinda. Not that there was ever a lot of dengue here, but you've got to start somewhere.

So how do you know if the angels are winning? Well, you could ask, but sometimes it's hard to tell what mosquitoes are saying. So a better way is to collect mosquito eggs. By analyzing the eggs, you can tell whether they came from O'Neill's angels, or the local riffraff.

The analysis is done in O'Neill's's lab at Monash University, where the mosquito eggs are ground up and put into a machine that will show whether the eggs are from those nasty wild mosquitoes or whether they are descendants of O'Neill's's angels.

So far this year, it looks like the angels are taking over from the natives. But it just as easily could have gone the other way.

O'Neill couldn't have found that out without relying on his team. He told me he's seen a lot of science projects fall over because teams couldn't hang together. "Finding a way to manage a group of people who are all quite individualistic and having them work together towards this common goal is critical," he says. "So I think there's a big management component to science that's not fully appreciated."

By all accounts O'Neill is a pretty good manager. But that means at times telling people things they don't want to hear. Michael Turelli, who works at the University of California, Davis, and is a devoted member of O'Neill's team, says O'Neill is a great team leader, "but that means that if part of the team isn't working, that part of the team is cut off without ceremony. I've seen him do that. And he does it in a way that people aren't offended. They realize, 'Yes, you can't give me another million dollars, because I haven't produced anything.' So that's that."

O'Neill is moving into a critical stage of his project — he's got his special mosquitoes, he's shown they can take over in the wild, but he still has to show they can stop dengue. That's going to mean taking on a bigger challenge: releasing them in countries like Vietnam and Thailand, where dengue is a huge problem.

The Balance Between 'Self-Promotion' And 'Cautious Conservatism'

O'Neill's colleague Scott Ritchie old me about another challenge O'Neill faces that has nothing to do with management. It's about how you portray your work. He says take the name they have given their project: Eliminate Dengue.

"That's really putting yourself up there," says Ritchie, "to say that we're going to eliminate dengue. And I think a lot of scientists are saying, 'Yeah, you bet. I'll bet you haven't thought of this, you haven't thought of that, you're making big promises before you've got the evidence to say that you're going to do it.' On the other hand, a name like that draws attention. It's certainly generated a lot of attention in the media. I mean, you're here, Joe. So I think you need to find this balance between self-promotion, but also a bit of cautious conservatism."

It's the entrepreneur in O'Neill that made him choose a bold name like Eliminate Dengue. He knows there are risks.

"We need the exposure; we need people to know about what we're doing. We want to have communities supporting what we're doing. But at the same time we need to be careful," says O'Neill. "This has the potential be difficult for the team, if it comes across that this is all Scott's idea and it's all because of Scott."

O'Neill and his colleagues have learned a lot in the past 20 years. And a goal as big as this, to change an entire species of mosquitoes in the world, could take another 20 years.

"Success for me is having an impact on dengue disease in communities. That's what we're really looking for," says O'Neill.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We've started a new project this week, going behind the scenes to find out how scientists and engineers answer big questions about the world. We're calling it Joe's Big Idea, after our science correspondent, Joe Palca, whose idea this was.

GREENE: Yesterday, Joe introduced us to Australian scientist Scot O'Neill. Twenty years ago, O'Neill had an idea to bring a deadly tropical disease called dengue fever under control. And finally, O'Neill and his team might be succeeding.

MONTAGNE: Turns out, though, success can be a real challenge for a scientist. Today, Joe Palca explains why.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Every profession has its symbols of success. For opera singers, it's performing at La Scala or the Met.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

PALCA: For baseball players, it's getting into the World Series.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL BEING HIT)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PALCA: For scientists, no great sound effects, but you get two papers published in the same issue of a prestigious journal like Nature, you've made it to the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

PALCA: So when Scott O'Neill had two papers in Nature last year describing his big idea for combating a global disease, the world took notice.

SCOTT O'NEILL: We were getting bombarded by people around the world from different governments wanting us to come and work in their countries because people are so desperate for something to try and stop dengue.

PALCA: That's the disease, dengue fever. And it's nasty. It's transmitted by a mosquito. It can be deadly, but even if it doesn't kill you, it knocks you out with a week or more of really high fever and a pounding headache. Billions of people around the world are at risk for getting dengue.

O'Neill's big idea for stopping dengue didn't involve a vaccine or a medicine. Instead, it involved the mosquito that transmits the disease. There are two parts to the idea. First, find a way to treat mosquitoes in the lab so they can no longer carry dengue. Next, release those mosquitoes and find out not only if they'll survive outside the lab, but actually replace the native population of mosquitoes. He showed he could do both of those things in those two Nature papers last year.

Now, I say O'Neill has done this, but that's misleading, because science is now a team sport.

O'NEILL: You know, we don't work in isolation on any projects in science these days. The days of having someone, you know, beavering away by themselves in the backroom have long gone, I think. And so we're working in large teams, always.

PALCA: O'Neill's team is also spread around the world. He's got collaborators in the United States, Brazil, Vietnam and Thailand, and in the tiny town of Babinda in northeastern Australia. That's where I got to go. Babinda's main claim to fame is winning the Golden Gumboot. A gumboot - for those of you who don't speak Australian - is a waterproof boot, what the Brits call a Wellington. The Golden Gumboot goes to the town in Australia that gets the most rain.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SHUTTING)

PALCA: I lucked out. It was actually sunny on the day I spent driving around with O'Neill's team here as they released his lab-reared mosquitoes. Martin Durkan is on the mosquito-release team. When his day starts, there are dozens of small plastic containers in the back of the van, each with about two dozen of O'Neill's mosquitoes. He drives up to a house, jumps out, walks over to the front yard and pries the lid off the container.

MARTIN DURKAN: And away they go. The little angels are flying.

PALCA: This might be only time someone would call mosquitoes angels, but it could be accurate, since these mosquitoes could be the key to combating dengue. And how, exactly? Well remember, the mosquitoes native to Babinda can transmit dengue, while these little angels can't.

And if you're anything like my editor, you might be wondering why is it that O'Neill's angels are likely to muscle in on the locals and drive them out. Good question.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Thank you.

PALCA: Turns out, O'Neill has given them a leg up in the lab, making them more likely to have lots of offspring. If the angels can take over from the local mosquitoes, then, in theory, there'll be no more dengue in Babinda - not that there ever was a lot of dengue here, but you've got to start somewhere. So how do you know the angels are winning?

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZING)

PALCA: Well, you could ask the mosquitoes, but sometimes it's hard to tell what mosquitoes are saying. So a better way is to collect mosquito eggs.

FREDERICO MUZZI: Hello, eliminate dengue team setting mosquito trap.

PALCA: That's Frederico Muzzi. He's going into people's yards to set his egg traps. By analyzing the eggs he collects, you can tell whether they came from O'Neill's angels or the local riffraff mosquitoes. Muzzi takes the eggs back to his office in the nearby city of Cairns, where he'll send them down to Monash University in Melbourne, where I go next.

O'NEILL: We just have to go through a double-door system to get in, and then we have to wait till an air curtain ramps up, and then we can walk through.

PALCA: O'Neill took me on a tour of his Melbourne lab. His team here consists of a dozen or more technicians and students, as well as several more senior scientists, including his wife.

O'NEILL: And the mosquito eggs come down from Cairns.

PALCA: And then they are ground up and put into a machine that will show whether the eggs were laid by nasty local Babinda mosquitoes or whether they are descendants of O'Neill's angels.

O'NEILL: And then, just everybody stands around, milling around, waiting for what the results might be.

(LAUGHTER)

PALCA: So far, in this year's experiment, it appears the angels are winning. Most of the people milling around are lab techs or grad students. They're the worker bees of science. When the boss gives them a job, they do it, no matter how tedious. But getting more senior scientists to stay on task is more like herding cats. O'Neill told me he's seen a lot of science teams fail because they couldn't hang together.

O'NEILL: And so I think finding a way to manage a group of people who are all quite individualistic and having them work together towards this common goal is critical. And so I think there is a big management component to science that's not fully appreciated.

PALCA: And managers sometimes have to tell people things they don't want to hear.

Michael Turelli is a member of Scott's team. He's at the University of California, Davis. He says Scott is a great team leader.

MICHAEL TURELLI: But that means that if part of the team isn't working, that part of the team is cut off without ceremony. I've seen him do that.

(LAUGHTER)

PALCA: Wow.

TURELLI: And he does it in a way that people aren't offended, they realize, yes, you can't give me another, you know, million dollars, because I haven't produced anything. So that's that.

PALCA: As his project goes from lab experiment to real-world testing, O'Neill seems OK with becoming the tough guy in charge.

O'NEILL: In my experience, some scientists look at that as the dark side, that you're basically the Darth Vader, here to ruin the lives of hardworking scientists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'NEILL: Yeah, thanks for that. I sort of like that image of the Darth Vader.

(LAUGHTER)

O'NEILL: I guess in a way I am the Darth Vader.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PALCA: Let's not get carried away here. Now there's another challenge O'Neill faces that has nothing to do with management, it has to do with how you present your message, your image.

For example, O'Neil's colleague Scott Ritchie says consider the name they've chosen for this project: "Eliminate Dengue."

SCOTT RITCHIE: Oh, that's really putting yourself up there, to say we're going to eliminate dengue. And I think a lot of scientists are saying, yeah, you bet. I'll bet you haven't thought of this, you haven't thought of that, you're making big promises before you've got the evidence to say that you're going to do it. On the other hand, a name like that draws attention; it's certainly generated a lot of attention in the media. I mean you're here, Joe. So, you know, I think you've got to find this balance between self-promotion, but also a little bit of caution conservatism.

PALCA: For his part, Scott O'Neill sees one more potential problem: morale.

O'NEILL: We need the exposure; we need people to know about what we're doing. We want to have communities supportive of what we're doing.

PALCA: That means O'Neill says yes when asked to give speeches or interviews. He's the front man for the project. But all that exposure can cause friction within the team...

O'NEILL: If it comes across that this is, you know, all Scott's idea and it's all because of Scott.

PALCA: Scott O'Neill is moving into a critical stage of his project. He still has to show his mosquitoes can stop dengue, and that's going to take a while. But, you know, this is what it's all about for O'Neill. He had a good idea, he's been pursuing it with a somewhat maniacal devotion for decades, and there's still a long way to go.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You can follow this project just by searching on Facebook for NPR: Joe's Big Idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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