The key to preventing another global pandemic may be found at UNC Charlotte. Expanding upon the University’s award-winning development of a novel COVID-19 wastewater surveillance program and rapidly growing success in bioinformatics, the University is bringing together experts in public health, viral discovery, genomic sequencing and artificial intelligence to explore ways to combat threats to human health.
The Center for Computational Intelligence to Predict Health and Environmental Risks (CIPHER) focuses on computational and empirical research to counter the spread of current and emerging infectious diseases and addresses some of the most vexing societal challenges, including antibiotic resistance, food safety and ecosystem health.
CIPHER will incorporate and elevate the University’s Bioinformatics Research Center (BRC), which was awarded $9 million in September 2020 by the North Carolina General Assembly — the largest state appropriation for research in Charlotte’s history — to support COVID-19 research and testing. The funding was instrumental for Cynthia Gibas, professor of bioinformatics and genomics and founder of the North Carolina Urban Microbiome Project, and Jessica Schlueter, associate professor of bioinformatics, to develop a protocol to detect and monitor the presence of the virus in wastewater. At the same time, center researchers analyzed viral and epidemiological data to address viral spread, assess treatments and therapeutics, and combat SARS-CoV-2 and future viruses. The University has rapidly expanded its wastewater surveillance and variant sequencing capabilities to include the local community through partnerships with Mecklenburg County and the state.
“The innovative and cross-disciplinary work of our researchers has shown our campus and the greater Charlotte region the immediate impacts a center like CIPHER has on public health,” said Chancellor Sharon L. Gaber. “We know that further investment will lead to additional positive outcomes for our University and our community as a whole.”
CIPHER is led by Dan Janies, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Bioinformatics and Genomics, and Adam Reitzel, professor of biological sciences. They are joined by more than 20 Charlotte faculty colleagues with expertise in computer science, bioinformatics, software and information systems, biological sciences, chemistry, mathematics and statistics, geographical information systems, public health, data science, education and communication.
“As we have seen in other viruses, like the influenza A virus that can also cause pandemics, SARS-CoV-2 and associated variants like omicron will remain a global concern for some time,'' said Janies, who led groundbreaking research to determine that the original SARS-CoV originated in bats and is now leading research on how SARS-CoV-2 emerged and evolved to evade immunity. "This is why the support of research focused on all aspects of viral emergence and evolution is critically important, now more than ever.”
To support CIPHER, new physical space is being created to allow additional collaborations. The center is located on the fourth floor of the Bioinformatics Building, where 24,000 square feet is being upfitted through a $10.5 million expansion to provide a state-of-the-art facility that includes 14 computational laboratories for researchers, 10 wet labs, faculty offices, several conference and seminar rooms, and collaborative space for students and visiting scientists.
“Our work can be like searching for specific drops of water in an ocean, sifting through enormous sets of variables to understand biological processes, and ultimately, finding solutions,” Reitzel said. “The investment in new equipment, labs, shared spaces and people is critical to improving the speed, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness of our research, allowing us to use computer models to simulate biological processes and make predictions we can test and validate.”
Additionally, the University is undertaking a new cluster of faculty hires in four research areas to strengthen the center’s areas of expertise: viral discovery and plasticity, whole genome phylogenetics, microbes and environmental health, and epidemiology. The new center corresponds with the University’s launch of its 10-year strategic plan, “Shaping What’s Next,” which includes a focus on accelerating the University to top-tier research status.
“CIPHER demonstrates the power of collaboration and creativity that exists among our talented faculty in many diverse fields,” said Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Rick Tankersley. “These successful interdisciplinary partnerships are instrumental in elevating UNC Charlotte’s research profile nationally and internationally."
The cluster of faculty hires is underway, and construction on the new center is expected to be completed in early spring.