Introducing Danny Wilson

Dr Danny Wilson joins us as Director of Studies in Data Science and an Associate Professor at the Department for Continuing Education. He oversees and plans the Department's course offerings in data science, including award-bearing courses, face-to-face classes and online programmes. He is a Fellow of St. Cross College.

He leads a research group in Infectious Diseases and Population Genomics at the Big Data Institute, Nuffield Department of Population Health (supported by the Wellcome Trust and Robertson Foundation) is a collaborator with the Modernising Medical Microbiology consortium based at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and an Associate Member of the Department of Statistics.

What is your research about? 

My research focuses on infectious diseases and asks whether genes influence infection outcomes such as disease severity and response to drug therapy.

Infectious diseases are of great interest not just because of the burden of mortality and sickness they inflict on the world, but also because they intriguingly involve an interaction between the patient and the attacking microbe. For that reason, we are interested in the effect of genes from both the patient and the microbe on infection outcomes.

Differences in human genes can alter the risk that a person suffers severe disease. Equally, differences in microbe genes can alter the risk that an infection is serious or mild, and whether the infection will respond to antimicrobials.

We have focused on bacterial infections, which include major pathogens causing tuberculosis, gastrointestinal disease, respiratory tract infections, blood infections and meningitis.

To answer some of the questions we are interested in, it has been necessary to develop new data science tools. These tools address challenges that arise with analysing data from populations of thousands of patients and microbes, where it is not feasible to do controlled experiments. Instead, we try to tease out correlation from causation between genes and infection outcomes in large populations.

The pandemic has given the wider public insights into variants and an understanding of the social and economic impacts of pathogens’ evolution. Prior to Covid, what have been some of the social and economic impacts from lesser-known pathogens?

The impact of pandemics is clear for all to see, now especially since we are living through one, but there are a large number of lesser-known pathogens that inflict a heavy toll of disease cumulatively.

For example, campylobacter is a name that may be unfamiliar, but most people will have suffered gastrointestinal infection from these bacteria, possibly on multiple occasions. It very rarely kills, but every year it is responsible for perhaps millions of days of lost productivity around the world, with estimates of the resulting economic cost running into the billions of pounds.

Tell us about the practical applications of your research.

Some of the research we are involved with has already changed life in this country.

For example, there are projects that use the DNA sequence of bacterial genes to predict antibiotic resistance. For some pathogens, like tuberculosis, it is cheaper to do this than test the bacteria directly in a laboratory. All cases of tuberculosis detected in England are DNA-sequenced, and predicting antibiotic resistance is one of the uses for that data.

Another is to identify clusters of transmission events. Contact tracing, which has become familiar terminology since COVID-19, can be used to suppress outbreaks of tuberculosis within England, which helps keeps rates extremely low.

Most of our research is somewhere on a spectrum between these high impact case studies and blue skies research, for whom the main consumers are other researchers. For instance, we develop computational tools for analysing DNA data, which other scientists use in their research.

In other work, the identification of new genes involved in infection severity or antibiotic resistance is usually just the beginning of a journey, which may involve experimental validation, and could lead other researchers to better understand biological processes that down the road eventually lead to the development of better treatments.

What’s the most important thing for us to understand about your research area?

DNA is changing our understanding of infectious disease by affecting the way that we diagnose resistant infections, track and trace outbreaks of disease, and develop new biological insights that could ultimately underpin improved treatments.

What plans do you have for your area of teaching in the Department?

We currently have four courses in development on Artificial Intelligence. These will be short online courses, the first of which we hope to run in 2022.

There is an ambition to build towards formal undergraduate qualifications in the area of data science, drawing together these courses and those from our Weekly Oxford Worldwide programme, including our Overview of Data Science and Applied Data Science courses.

Beyond this, the plan is to introduce new summer schools within the remit of data science, while the award-bearing Advanced Diploma in IT Systems and Design remains a focal point of our teaching efforts in this area.

Discover more about Danny and his research on his academic profile page.

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Published 11 August 2021