Zika virus: The benefits of open research

Gabrielle Lehrer-Brey is working in the Biological Safety Cabinet with plasma samples that will be going into a nucleic acid isolation instrument. - Photo Kristi L. Hall

Gabrielle Lehrer-Brey of Unversity of Wisconsin-Madison is working in the Biological Safety Cabinet with plasma samples. – Photo: Kristi L. Hall

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers working with Brazilian collaborators have started publicly sharing on a daily basis results and data of a study undertaken to assess Zika viral dynamics in three Indian rhesus macaques.

The study was started on February 15 by principal investigators David O’Connor and Jorge Osorio; the latter was one of the two from the university to identify the Zika virus circulating in Colombia in October.

“Hoping to start understanding Zika virus dynamics in macaques tomorrow. Real-time study results shared at https://goo.gl/IXF79u,” Prof. O’Connor tweeted on February 14. It was quickly followed by another tweet: “Never tried sharing data like this before. Feels like walking into a country for the first time. Exciting, but don’t know what to expect.”

The main objective of studying Zika infection in rhesus macaques is to help understand why the Zika virus has recently been associated with diseases such as microcephaly and to find out if the virus indeed causes the abnormalities. This information will help in the development and evaluation of interventions to minimise future Zika virus-associated disease.

Also read: When research goes off the rails

A week following the start of the novel initiative, the researchers, who call themselves ZEST (the Zika experimental science team), have been true to their word and have been sharing information, raw data included. “We decided to share data publicly because we hoped it would be useful. Many groups that study HIV are beginning to contribute expertise to understanding Zika virus, so we hope that our data can help them design better experiments… and learn from any mistakes that we make along the way,” Prof. O’Connor said in an email to The Hindu.

“I think this is a very important and remarkable step. Considering that this is an urgent public health emergency, the faster we can learn from each other, the faster progress will be made,” Koen Van Rompay, a specialist in non-human primate models of HIV infection at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis said in an email to The Hindu. “Receiving the latest data fast will allow researchers to modify their own studies to get optimal results.”

Prof. Rompay, who is part of a consortium that plans to inject pregnant macaques with Zika, will embark on his project in the next few weeks and also plans to share the data openly in real time so others can learn from it. According to him, the Zika virus is still a “very large black box”, so anything that can be learnt from it and shared will help others to make progress. “Together, we can make a bigger dent in the black box. True researchers want to make a difference and help those who need it, rather than thinking about their own fame and prestige,” he said.

In a note posted on the website, Prof. O’Connor’s team has expressed its commitment to answering “as quickly and accurately as possible” as many questions about the data. It has gone one step further by assuring that it would share specimens of the experiment with as many interested researchers as possible.

From left Rodrigo Brindeiro, Renato Santana Aguiar, Dave O’Connor, Gabriel Goncalves, and Dawn Dudley. O’Connor and Dudley are from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and others are from the Federal University

Some of the team member (from left) Rodrigo Brindeiro, Renato Santana Aguiar, David O’Connor, Gabriel Goncalves, and Dawn Dudley. O’Connor and Dudley are from UW at Madison and others are from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Sharing for a larger cause

The team’s novel approach is a marked departure from the shroud of secrecy that usually surrounds highly sensitive and competitive research. “I’m not overly worried about other scientists ‘scooping’ us. I hope others benefit from our data,” Prof. O’Connor said. “Our research programs are largely funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, whose budget is in turn funded by taxpayers. If anyone should have precedence in seeing the data as quickly as possible, it is the public — ultimately, they provide the money for the work to be done.”

In fact, the open science initiative has led to a two-way learning process between the team and other researchers in conducting the experiments. Apparently, the team has been sending samples to people who learned about the study from viewing the results for specialised analyses that they hadn’t even considered. Some of the data has been re-analysed using other tools, and these scientists are working together with others to figure out which approaches are the best.

In terms of openness, the duo’s initiative has surpassed a 2011 unique open research venture by Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Dr. Redfield did her research in full public glare detailing all the elements of her work in an open lab notebook on her blog. She was trying to replicate a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) astrobiologist’s disputed study published in the journal Science of a bacterium’s capability to substitute arsenic for a small percentage of phosphorus and still sustain its growth.

While the main intent of sharing data in real time is to assist their peers planning or undertaking similar work on macaques to take the data into account, Prof. O’Connor’s team has only one caveat to those using its data — acknowledge the source of funding. This condition is at once strange as attributing the source of data is either taken for granted or is considered redundant.

Traditionally, sharing data or even partial results of a study publicly is viewed dimly by journal publishers and greatly jeopardises the publication process. But Prof. O’Connor’s and Prof. Osorio’s unique exercise may not suffer the same fate, thanks to a timely agreement reached in September 2015 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).

With the Ebola crisis in West African countries turning the spotlight on the deficiencies of existing data-sharing mechanism during public health emergencies, the WHO had urged the ICMJE to take a less rigid stand on accepting manuscripts for publication when data are shared publicly. Following the support by the members of the committee, the ICMJE has “explicitly confirmed that pre-publication dissemination of information critical to public health will not prejudice journal publication in the context of a public health emergency declared by the WHO”.

While the medical journals have kept their word and are ensuring minimal delay in sharing critical public health results, the WHO has done its part — posting online in the “Zika Open” collection within 24 hours any research manuscripts related to Zika epidemic that are submitted to WHO Bulletin even as the peer review process is under way.

Published in The Hindu on February 26, 2016