Ilaria Capua: Collaborating for a healthier future

July 25, 2018
Jonathan Griffin

After years of conducting groundbreaking influenza research and advocating for science in Italian Parliament, Ilaria Capua is using her experience to bring University of Florida scientists together to tackle complex global health concerns.

As director of the One Health Center of Excellence at UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, Capua is expanding the reach of the center beyond its traditional domain by using an interdisciplinary approach targeting a broad range of emerging health concerns.

The concept of One Health emphasizes that human health is largely connected to the health of animals, plants and the environment and identifies the need for multidisciplinary approaches in solving health issues.

Traditionally, most One Health efforts around the world have focused solely on zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted between animals and humans, leaving many problem areas ignored, Capua says. But at UF, the center is looking to break tradition by using the One Health approach to help address other global issues like crop disease.

“We are looking into ways to address the big challenges in front of us by using big data, by using interdisciplinarity, and by pulling together areas of excellence here at UF,” Capua said.

Ilaria Capua poses next to a microscopic image of retina cells which is part of an art exhibit sponsored by the One Health Center titled "Pop Microscopy. Bridging Art and Science towards the Future."

Capua, who is a professor in UF’s College of Public Health & Health Professions, the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine, has had an unconventional career that has given her a unique perspective on health concerns and science policy.

Although initially trained in veterinary medicine at the University of Perugia in Italy, Capua established herself in virology where she found success researching avian flu.

After many years in the lab, Capua sought to impact science policy and entered the world of politics. In 2013, she was elected as a member of Italian Parliament.

While the lone scientist in her respective house of Parliament, Capua managed to make important progress in areas such as antimicrobial resistance and epidemic threats. But her political tenure was cut short after accusations were made that she was involved in avian flu virus trafficking. Capua, at one point, faced criminal charges punishable by life imprisonment.

In 2016, these charges were dropped after a review of the case found the accusations to be unfounded. Even so, the hostile environment created by the charges led Capua to depart for the US where she joined UF to direct the One Health Center of Excellence.

During her time as a political figure, Capua noticed that One Health was often either poorly understood or completely overlooked.

“I realized that nobody knew anything about the One Health approach. So, it’s not on the radar screen of the decision makers and it should be,” Capua said.

The novel health issues the center has set out to address are multifaceted, and are not restricted to the realm of zoonotic disease. To provide solutions, expertise from many disciplines outside of medicine will be critical, Capua says.

The center is studying how social media could be used to gauge consumer acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A method to accurately measure public perception of GMOs could be an invaluable tool moving forward, as genetic modification may eventually offer a solution to citrus greening, a plant disease that has devastated the citrus industry. By sparking collaboration between agricultural economists, informatics engineers, and data miners, the center has initiated studies that may provide answers and bring international attention to this problem.

Although the center is expanding its reach, zoonotic disease still remains an important focus. As part of an extensive collaboration with the Florida Department of Health, the center is helping to build an understanding of the characteristics of the Zika epidemic in Florida.                                                                         

The One Health Center is also striving to predict where the jobs of tomorrow might emerge and prepare students to one day take them on, Capua said.

In the future, it may be increasingly important for experts to apply their skills to work outside traditional job markets, Capua said. Veterinary medicine, for example, could have major impacts in areas such as the food industry and expansion in developing countries.

To train students in the One Health approach and for the future job market, the center has developed a certificate program which will kick off in 2019. Through this program, students from diverse academic backgrounds will be exposed to a variety of topics such as big data, health communications and international regulations.

The ability to anticipate health issues before they arrive is critical for healthcare research. Capua says she has put this ability to use throughout her career, most notably when she recognized the need for public sharing of influenza data between researchers.

“It’s a little bit a story of my life. I can see things way before they arrive,” Capua said.

At the One Health Center, Capua and her team will continue to identify emerging health problems and by establishing collaboration between UF researchers, the center will facilitate studies to meet these issues head-on and help lay the foundation for a healthier future.

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