Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Warrane resident helping to prevent worldwide pandemic

Dr Neil Fernandes (Left) pictured with Warrane’s former dean Arthur Escamilla (Right)

If you have seen the film Contagion, you may have some idea of the importance of the research that Warrane resident Dr Neil Fernandes is undertaking. Neil, a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Sydney, is among a select band of researchers around the world who are refining techniques for tracking down the latest influenza strains that may be capable of causing a worldwide pandemic.

As Contagion showed, the viruses in question can be devastating, taking lives more quickly than authorities can track down their source. Then the question becomes: how do you halt their spread? The solution to this problem involves being able to identify the virus quickly, so that a vaccine or targeted drugs can be formulated. Neil explains that the work he has been carrying out, under the supervision of Associate Professor Kevin Downard, has improved methods for the rapid detection and sub-typing of influenza viruses.

Neil’s research aims at differentiating between different circulating influenza viruses such as the type A H1N1 2009-pandemic virus and seasonal H1N1 viruses. In his study, viruses from nasal samples recovered from patients admitted to Westmead hospital, were isolated using animal cell culture and were analysed by high resolution mass spectrometry. Neil says the key to his research is the identification of “unique period specific signature peptides” that are characteristic of particular human type A subtypes and type B influenza.

“These signature peptides are like a molecular fingerprint that enable us to detect and differentiate between many different types of circulating influenza viruses,” he said. “The methodology we are developing at the University of Sydney represents a more direct approach over conventional RT-PCR and sequencing approaches currently used to characterise circulating influenza viruses. It therefore aids in facilitating a more rapid response when highly pathogenic strains emerge in the population.”

Neil emphasises that the new technique, can also identify new types of viruses, rather than just targeting known viruses. He has been working on the research project now for more than 18 months. He was offered the job even before he completed his PhD at UNSW.

“Associate Professor Kevin Downard at the University of Sydney was looking for someone with experience with animal cell culture, so that the lab could gain expertise in growing and characterizing influenza viruses from clinical samples recovered from human patients,” he said.

Neil arrived in Australia in 2007 to work on a PhD at UNSW, under a prestigious scholarship from UNSW, which paid for tuition fees and living expenses. He completed his PhD research in 2011 under the supervision of Professor Staffan Kjelleberg, Professor Peter Steinberg and Dr Torsten Thomas.

His research was in the field of marine molecular microbiology and metagenomics. His PhD research demonstrated that a bleaching disease in a marine red alga was associated with “complex shifts in the phylogenetic and functional community composition”.

“The research showed that these shifts could be brought about by changes in environmental conditions that allowed opportunistic pathogens to cause disease,” he says.

Neil says he feels privileged to be doing the work, even though it means that he is separated from his family. His mum and dad, live in Bombay and are now retired but still spend most of their free time helping out with parish work at their local Catholic Church. His sister lives in the United States and is working towards her PhD in neuroscience.

Neil says he came to be living at Warrane thanks to a stroke of good luck. When he applied even before arriving in Australia in 2007, a place became available in College just at the right time.

“I consider myself lucky that I was welcomed into college by staff I now consider to be dear friends and was able to make Warrane my home straight away,” he said. “I have been very inspired the environment and ethos at Warrane. It has contributed immensely to my mindset and worldview. It is my belief that though Warrane is a melting pot for students from all over Australia and the world. Everyone here is respected, and everyone here will leave Warrane with something that they have been inspired to hold on to for the rest of their lives.”

And what about that film, Contagion? Was it a bit overdone? “No,” says Neil, “it was a good and realistic account of what might happen in a pandemic.” He feels it also did a good job of conveying what researchers like himself are doing and that it is a welcome change, to come across movie based on scientific principles. Neil says he firmly believes that that science has contributed “immeasurably” to improving the quality of human life and that it will continue to provide solutions to most of the most challenging problems which humanity faces. That being said, he says he is also willing to admit that science and rationality alone cannot meet human needs, and that we must admit and accept a significant, necessary role for faith and hope in our lives.

How long does he think it would take now to have a vaccine ready for a pandemic virus in a country like Australia? Probably around three to six months, he says. In the meantime there is still the anti-viral Tamiflu, which has been used to treat and prevent influenza virus infections. Individuals and families may try to quarantine themselves, but he says this is “easier said than done”.

He says that it can pay to get vaccinated each year with the latest influenza vaccine, but the previous year’s vaccine may or may not help to protect you against a new or pandemic strain. It is crucial that the right strain is selected for making the vaccine. And this is where he hopes, his research at the University of Sydney will matter the most.