'Eliminate Dengue' Team Has A Deep (Lab) Bench Australian researcher Scott O'Neill is leading a charge to rid the world of dengue fever. And it's a real team sport, he says: "We don't work in isolation in any projects in science these days. The days of having someone beavering away by themselves in the backroom have long gone."
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'Eliminate Dengue' Team Has A Deep (Lab) Bench

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'Eliminate Dengue' Team Has A Deep (Lab) Bench

'Eliminate Dengue' Team Has A Deep (Lab) Bench

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On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

We've started a new project this week, going behind the scenes to find out how scientists and engineers answer big questions about the world. We're calling it Joe's Big Idea, after our science correspondent, Joe Palca, whose idea this was.

GREENE: Yesterday, Joe introduced us to Australian scientist Scot O'Neill. Twenty years ago, O'Neill had an idea to bring a deadly tropical disease called dengue fever under control. And finally, O'Neill and his team might be succeeding.

MONTAGNE: Turns out, though, success can be a real challenge for a scientist. Today, Joe Palca explains why.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Every profession has its symbols of success. For opera singers, it's performing at La Scala or the Met.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

PALCA: For baseball players, it's getting into the World Series.



PALCA: For scientists, no great sound effects, but you get two papers published in the same issue of a prestigious journal like Nature, you've made it to the top.


PALCA: So when Scott O'Neill had two papers in Nature last year describing his big idea for combating a global disease, the world took notice.

SCOTT O'NEILL: We were getting bombarded by people around the world from different governments wanting us to come and work in their countries because people are so desperate for something to try and stop dengue.

PALCA: That's the disease, dengue fever. And it's nasty. It's transmitted by a mosquito. It can be deadly, but even if it doesn't kill you, it knocks you out with a week or more of really high fever and a pounding headache. Billions of people around the world are at risk for getting dengue.

O'Neill's big idea for stopping dengue didn't involve a vaccine or a medicine. Instead, it involved the mosquito that transmits the disease. There are two parts to the idea. First, find a way to treat mosquitoes in the lab so they can no longer carry dengue. Next, release those mosquitoes and find out not only if they'll survive outside the lab, but actually replace the native population of mosquitoes. He showed he could do both of those things in those two Nature papers last year.

Now, I say O'Neill has done this, but that's misleading, because science is now a team sport.

O'NEILL: You know, we don't work in isolation on any projects in science these days. The days of having someone, you know, beavering away by themselves in the backroom have long gone, I think. And so we're working in large teams, always.

PALCA: O'Neill's team is also spread around the world. He's got collaborators in the United States, Brazil, Vietnam and Thailand, and in the tiny town of Babinda in northeastern Australia. That's where I got to go. Babinda's main claim to fame is winning the Golden Gumboot. A gumboot - for those of you who don't speak Australian - is a waterproof boot, what the Brits call a Wellington. The Golden Gumboot goes to the town in Australia that gets the most rain.


PALCA: I lucked out. It was actually sunny on the day I spent driving around with O'Neill's team here as they released his lab-reared mosquitoes. Martin Durkan is on the mosquito-release team. When his day starts, there are dozens of small plastic containers in the back of the van, each with about two dozen of O'Neill's mosquitoes. He drives up to a house, jumps out, walks over to the front yard and pries the lid off the container.

MARTIN DURKAN: And away they go. The little angels are flying.

PALCA: This might be only time someone would call mosquitoes angels, but it could be accurate, since these mosquitoes could be the key to combating dengue. And how, exactly? Well remember, the mosquitoes native to Babinda can transmit dengue, while these little angels can't.

And if you're anything like my editor, you might be wondering why is it that O'Neill's angels are likely to muscle in on the locals and drive them out. Good question.


PALCA: Turns out, O'Neill has given them a leg up in the lab, making them more likely to have lots of offspring. If the angels can take over from the local mosquitoes, then, in theory, there'll be no more dengue in Babinda - not that there ever was a lot of dengue here, but you've got to start somewhere. So how do you know the angels are winning?


PALCA: Well, you could ask the mosquitoes, but sometimes it's hard to tell what mosquitoes are saying. So a better way is to collect mosquito eggs.

FREDERICO MUZZI: Hello, eliminate dengue team setting mosquito trap.

PALCA: That's Frederico Muzzi. He's going into people's yards to set his egg traps. By analyzing the eggs he collects, you can tell whether they came from O'Neill's angels or the local riffraff mosquitoes. Muzzi takes the eggs back to his office in the nearby city of Cairns, where he'll send them down to Monash University in Melbourne, where I go next.

O'NEILL: We just have to go through a double-door system to get in, and then we have to wait till an air curtain ramps up, and then we can walk through.

PALCA: O'Neill took me on a tour of his Melbourne lab. His team here consists of a dozen or more technicians and students, as well as several more senior scientists, including his wife.

O'NEILL: And the mosquito eggs come down from Cairns.

PALCA: And then they are ground up and put into a machine that will show whether the eggs were laid by nasty local Babinda mosquitoes or whether they are descendants of O'Neill's angels.

O'NEILL: And then, just everybody stands around, milling around, waiting for what the results might be.


PALCA: So far, in this year's experiment, it appears the angels are winning. Most of the people milling around are lab techs or grad students. They're the worker bees of science. When the boss gives them a job, they do it, no matter how tedious. But getting more senior scientists to stay on task is more like herding cats. O'Neill told me he's seen a lot of science teams fail because they couldn't hang together.

O'NEILL: And so I think finding a way to manage a group of people who are all quite individualistic and having them work together towards this common goal is critical. And so I think there is a big management component to science that's not fully appreciated.

PALCA: And managers sometimes have to tell people things they don't want to hear.

Michael Turelli is a member of Scott's team. He's at the University of California, Davis. He says Scott is a great team leader.

MICHAEL TURELLI: But that means that if part of the team isn't working, that part of the team is cut off without ceremony. I've seen him do that.



TURELLI: And he does it in a way that people aren't offended, they realize, yes, you can't give me another, you know, million dollars, because I haven't produced anything. So that's that.

PALCA: As his project goes from lab experiment to real-world testing, O'Neill seems OK with becoming the tough guy in charge.

O'NEILL: In my experience, some scientists look at that as the dark side, that you're basically the Darth Vader, here to ruin the lives of hardworking scientists.


O'NEILL: Yeah, thanks for that. I sort of like that image of the Darth Vader.


O'NEILL: I guess in a way I am the Darth Vader.


PALCA: Let's not get carried away here. Now there's another challenge O'Neill faces that has nothing to do with management, it has to do with how you present your message, your image.

For example, O'Neil's colleague Scott Ritchie says consider the name they've chosen for this project: "Eliminate Dengue."

SCOTT RITCHIE: Oh, that's really putting yourself up there, to say we're going to eliminate dengue. And I think a lot of scientists are saying, yeah, you bet. I'll bet you haven't thought of this, you haven't thought of that, you're making big promises before you've got the evidence to say that you're going to do it. On the other hand, a name like that draws attention; it's certainly generated a lot of attention in the media. I mean you're here, Joe. So, you know, I think you've got to find this balance between self-promotion, but also a little bit of caution conservatism.

PALCA: For his part, Scott O'Neill sees one more potential problem: morale.

O'NEILL: We need the exposure; we need people to know about what we're doing. We want to have communities supportive of what we're doing.

PALCA: That means O'Neill says yes when asked to give speeches or interviews. He's the front man for the project. But all that exposure can cause friction within the team...

O'NEILL: If it comes across that this is, you know, all Scott's idea and it's all because of Scott.

PALCA: Scott O'Neill is moving into a critical stage of his project. He still has to show his mosquitoes can stop dengue, and that's going to take a while. But, you know, this is what it's all about for O'Neill. He had a good idea, he's been pursuing it with a somewhat maniacal devotion for decades, and there's still a long way to go.

Joe Palca, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: You can follow this project just by searching on Facebook for NPR: Joe's Big Idea.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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