Skipping the 20th Century

Wireless science in resource-poor countries

Bill Snyder
Published: July, 2006

Dan Masys, M.D., chair of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt, is heading the development of an AIDS database network in Latin America.
Photo by Dean Dixon
Beyond the reach of power lines and paved roads in some of the most remote corners of the globe, scientific progress—and history—is being made.

Researchers armed with nothing more exotic than cell phones and laptop computers are plugging into worldwide efforts to conquer ancient and modern plagues, and to prepare for those to come.

Their collaborations breach traditional barriers of geography, nation, even language, and they are transforming the way scientists are trained and science is conducted. In a sense, the digital revolution has enabled resource-poor countries to skip the 20th Century, and to catapult into a new scientific age.

“In the scientific discipline of informatics, global dialogues are just a completely commonplace occurrence,” says Dan Masys, M.D., who chairs the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“I think that is the earmark of 21st Century science,” he says. “It transcends geopolitical boundaries with a transparency that is so casual and taken for granted that we don’t even think about it.”

Masys is the principal investigator of a five-year, $3 million grant awarded this spring by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to construct a database that can track the changing face of AIDS in six Latin American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Haiti, Honduras and Peru.

The grant is part of a global program called IEDEA—International Epidemiologic Databases to Evaluate AIDS—that aims to improve the monitoring of and response to the rapidly mutating human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

“This is a very clever adversary,” explains Masys, who led biomedical informatics programs at the National Library of Medicine and the University of California, San Diego, before coming to Vanderbilt last year. “Because it has a lot of genetic instability, it essentially can emerge with a resistant strain by just random selection of mutants that are not adequately suppressed by certain drugs.

“So Job No. 1 is accurate observation of patterns of disease which we can then combine with modern molecular biology and genetics to understand why those global patterns are occurring.

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