Investment in vaccine mathematics a powerful tool to combat infectious diseases

Jianhong Wu
Jianhong Wu

A major new research initiative based in the Faculty of Science at York University will develop mathematical techniques to identify populations most susceptible to infectious diseases and enable manufacturers to produce cost-effective vaccines that can be deployed quickly. The research is also expected to better position Canada to respond rapidly to emerging public health issues such as Zika outbreaks.

The $2.6-million NSERC/Sanofi Industrial Research Chair in Vaccine Mathematics, Modelling and Manufacturing, awarded to York University Distinguished Research Professor Jianhong Wu, was announced at York on Tuesday, Jan. 23.  A professor in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics in the Faculty of Science, Wu will lead a large team of York professors, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. The other team members who are part of this initiative are Mathematics and Statistics Professors Jane Heffernan, Neal Madras, Xin Gao, Michael Chen, Huaxiong Huang and Helene Massam.

York University Distinguished Research Professor Jianhong Wu Faculty of Science. Photograph by Paola Scattolon
York University Distinguished Research Professor Jianhong Wu Faculty of Science. Photograph by Paola Scattolon

Sanofi Pasteur, which has previously collaborated with York on a number of major projects related to infectious disease modelling, will invest $1.5 million over five years. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will provide $1 million through its Industrial Research Chair program, established to help universities build on existing strengths in areas of interest to industry. The remainder will be contributed by York University through various supports.

“Establishing the NSERC/Sanofi Industrial Research Chair at York University will not only accelerate frontline research and support Canadian industry, but also help improve the wellbeing of people around the globe,” says Ray Jayawardhana, dean of the Faculty of Science. “It is yet another example of the exciting research initiatives in York’s Faculty of Science that engage our faculty members and students with partners in the public and private sectors to enhance value and maximize impact.”

Manufacturers of vaccines in Canada are facing a number of significant challenges: the increasing cost of developing vaccines, the need to move rapidly from development and production of vaccines to mass use in target populations; and the complexity of understanding how infectious disease is transmitted, in an increasingly interconnected world.

“The dedicated resources this collaboration brings will enable us to focus on infectious diseases that are critically important to the health of Canadians,” says Wu. “With access to clinical trial data and vaccine efficacy data from both public agencies and the private sector, we will use mathematical modelling to inform the most efficient and cost-effective ways to immunize the public against these diseases.”

Canadian vaccine manufacturers and regulatory authorities need to be able to make evidence-based predictions and develop new technologies to analyze how diseases are transmitted. Wu and his team will develop fundamental mathematical theories, methodologies, techniques and tools to analyze infection risk in populations, map the spread of disease through mathematical modelling and conduct cost-benefit analyses of immunization programs based on vaccine efficiency and industrial production capacity.

The IRC program will include projects that will study: the use of vaccines to address hospital acquired infections such as Clostridium difficile (C.diff) and the need to combat colonization of hospital wards; transmission of influenza in three-generation households to determine if there are segments of the population where the high-dose flu vaccine should be targeted; and the impact of childhood immunization on transmission of disease, along with optimal programs of booster follow-ups.

Sanofi Pasteur will benefit from the mathematical methodologies and technologies developed as well as the datasets collected and analyzed. York students will benefit from Sanofi Pasteur’s research and development expertise, and gain valuable experiential education opportunities, as they train to become Canada’s next generation of experts in mathematical modelling, data analytics, economic evaluation and infectious disease dynamics.

Wu, who is also a Canada Research Chair in Industrial and Applied Mathematics, founded York’s Centre for Disease Modelling, which has developed many international partnerships: with China on communicable disease modelling and management; with India on vector-borne disease informatics; with Brazil on health informatics; and with many European and North American groups on a wide variety of major diseases. The Industrial Research Chair project will use his Laboratory for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and York’s Advanced Disaster, Emergency and Rapid Response Simulation facilities.