The Practical Application of Basic Research into Pathogen Evolution

Evolution is a key aspect of the biology of many pathogens, driving processes ranging from immune escape to changes in virulence. Pathogens are remarkable systems for studying basic evolutionary processes and exhibit abilities that out-manoeuvre therapeutic intervention. The immense social and economic impact of bacterial and viral pathogens, from drug-resistant infections in hospitals to the devastation of agricultural resources, has resulted in major investment to understand the causes and consequences of pathogen evolution. Consequently, there are also worldwide networks to track the evolution of such pathogens. 

Prof. Derek Smith’s team focuses on understanding the fundamental processes that govern the evolution of Influenza and now also SARS-CoV-2 viruses, to translate this understanding into the prediction of possible future antigenic variants to guide Phase II clinical trials of next generation vaccines. If that evolution could be predicted, instead of sub-optimal vaccine effectiveness against new strains that emerge, we could have vaccines that are one step ahead of nature.


Derek Smith

Professor of Infectious Disease Informatics, Zoology Department, Cambridge University, United Kingdom

Derek Smith is a Professor of Infectious Disease Informatics in the Zoology Department at Cambridge University. He is also a member of the Department of Virology at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands. He is an advisor to the WHO Influenza Vaccine Strain Selection Committee and is also involved in vaccine strain selection for other human and non-human pathogens for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Animal Health Organisation.

Using a new mathematical method called antigenic cartography to study the phenotypic evolution of influenza viruses and other rapidly evolving pathogens, his research is focused on how these pathogens evolve, to what extent this evolution is predictable, and determining public and animal health measures against such ever-changing pathogens.


Research gate