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14 May 2019

Dr Cadhla Firth, who has joined the Australian Institute of Tropical Health & Medicine at James Cook University, hopes to use the institute’s genome sequencing research to understand more about the spread of disease from animals to humans.

Dr Firth, who joined James Cook in February as a HOT NORTH Career Development Fellow, was an ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She will be working with Prof John McBride and his team, who are using next-generation sequencing technologies to identify the agents of unknown infections in hospitals across Northern Australia. 

She hopes to use her unusually broad research background to build up a big picture idea of how deadly diseases such as leptospirosis are spreading, particularly with climate change increasing the frequency of severe flooding. 

The university’s research involves using portable DNA sequencing devices to detect known and unknown pathogens in the blood of seriously ill patients.

The primary aim of this research is to raise the speed and efficiency of diagnosis, and an important part of Dr Firth’s work will be to help build a diagnostic pipeline to rapidly provide doctors with vital information so they can give their patients better treatment.

She went on: “Then we’re going to be taking the sequence data to try to understand more about the underlying epidemiology of some of the main pathogens that are circulating here. And that ties into biosecurity.”

Dr Firth became fascinated by the rats teeming in New York when she was doing postdoctoral work at Columbia University. “You just see them everywhere. I remember being at the grocery store one night and they were scampering across the broccoli. And you get in a train car and there are rats there. At that time, we didn’t really have any idea what they were carrying.”

This eventually led Dr Firth to four years of study in Malaysian Borneo, studying the pathogens carried by domestic rats (Rattus rattus) and a native rat called Müller’s giant Sunda rat.

The soon-to-be-published results show that in cities the rats carry more pathogens that could infect people than those in more natural environments.

She said: “So what we really need to start doing is try to identify the features of the city that might be increasing our risk of getting diseases from animals, so we can try to design smarter cities.

“For me, I think it’s good to get a broader perspective on whether we should be managing zoonotic diseases at the level of the animal, or if we can modify our environment to reduce our level of interaction, or if we need to work on vaccines or therapeutics for people.”

Acknowledgement: Dr Firth’s position comes with two years of salary support from the HOT NORTH project, which is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and based at the Menzies School of Health Research.

Dr Cadhla Firth

Research Fellow


Ph: 07 4232 1775

Location: Cairns Campus

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