Using data to prevent disease

Published: 23/09/2021

Scientists around the world have been using data to help prevent disease, including Covid-19, flu and food poisoning. 


Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists have been analysing large amounts of data relating to coronavirus and patient genetics, to identify patients at risk and devise treatments. Read our blog post about using data to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.


Influenza A virus is known for causing bird and pig flu. The virus is able to jump species, including from animals to people. Seasonal epidemic outbreaks cause significant disease and death.

An analysis of DNA data of 60 flu patients in intensive care revealed an unusually high number with a variation in a gene called IFITM3. This was found by researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

The gene variant may explain why apparently healthy people have needed intensive care after contracting swine flu, while others were symptomless and unaware they had been infected. 

It was the first time a gene has been linked to the body's defences and could be used to screen for those most in need of vaccination.

A US$3 million study led by Roslin aims to develop a tool to forecast and control bird flu outbreaks. It will use more than one million data entries relating to the virus genome, derived from global surveillance programmes.

A related study will use genetic data to produce a library of genes that reduce Influenza A infection in pigs and chickens, and genes that limit the spread of the virus to people. 


If Staphylococcus aureus bacteria get into a cut, they can cause infections that, in rare instances, can be deadly. Antibiotic resistant strains of the bacteria, such as MRSA, are a major cause of hospital acquired infections. The bacteria is also a burden on farms as it causes diseases such as mastitis in cows and bone infections in chickens.

A team led by Roslin analysed data obtained from the genome of more than 800 strains of bacteria that were isolated from people and animals. They found that each time the bacteria jumps species, it acquires new genes that enable it to survive in its new host.

The findings could help improve the use of antibiotics and design better strategies for limiting the spread of disease.

Food poisoning

Certain strains of Escherichia coli that are normally harmless residents of the gastrointestinal tract of cattle can cause serious human disease if we ingest food or water contaminated with them.

Researchers used software that compares genetic data from bacterial samples isolated from both animals and people. The software learns to recognise the subset of strains present in cattle that are a threat to human health, and this information can be used for control strategies. 

A related study analysed data of the genome of Salmonella, to investigate which bacteria strains can cause food poisoning. 

Outbreaks in farmed animals

Data derived from the DNA of farmed animals enables research into preventing and mitigating diseases. 

For instance, scientists analyse data of the genome of animals to better understand how it drives resistance to disease. This knowledge could be used by farmers and breeders to improve animals’ health, welfare and productivity.

Dr Emily Clark from the Roslin Institute said: “Having high quality information about the genomes of animals has huge potential to prevent and mitigate the effect of disease outbreaks quickly, limiting potential effects on food production and improving animal welfare.”

An example is work led by Roslin scientists that used precise genome-editing techniques to remove a small section of a gene that is targeted by a deadly pig virus, called porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. This small change conferred resistance to a disease that kills newborn piglets and costs the pig production industry more than £1.75 billion per year in the US and Europe alone.

Salmon health 

One of the major health problems facing farmed salmon is sea lice. These parasites attach to the skin of the fish, often causing open injuries and stress. Different species show varying resistance to sea lice – while Atlantic salmon is susceptible, coho salmon, a Pacific species, is almost completely resistant. 

Scientists are analysing data of the salmon genome and its function to compare how different species respond to lice. 

Dr Diego Robledo from Roslin said: “This knowledge could help us identify the key mechanisms underlying resistance of coho salmon to lice, which we can then use to increase resistance in Atlantic salmon via different methods, including genome editing.”

Roslin experts will be part of the One Health panel at our annual data conference on 30 Sep, book your place here.

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