GHI opens new Colombian collaboration opportunities for UW researchers

A group of researchers on a concrete pad next to the Amazon.

Mansonellosis is a disease most people will never hear of, but it affects more than 100 million people worldwide. When University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Mostafa Zamanian wanted to know more—from the prevalence of the disease to how it affects the immune system to developing treatments—the Colombia/Wisconsin One Health Consortium connected him to resources he needed.

“This would not be possible without the coordination of the scientists based in Colombia who have helped coordinate complex studies and are involved in pursuing the scientific questions we have, and driving the questions we should have,” says Zamanian, an assistant professor in Pathobiological Sciences in the School of Veterinary Medicine. “Much of the analysis is being carried out in Colombia. Some samples have been transferred to Madison. It’s a true two-way collaboration.”

The Colombia/Wisconsin One Health Consortium has become a project of the UW-Madison Global Health Institute and will be renamed the UW-GHI One Health Colombia. It’s co-directed by GHI Director Jorge Osorio, a professor in Pathobiological Sciences and Juan P. Hernandez-Ortiz, a UW alumnus and professor  in Materials and Minerals at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. They run a genomic lab in Medellin with a state-of-the-art BSL2 facility that can analyze a host of samples, from viruses to the whole human genome.

Researchers in a boat on the river.
Karl Ciuoderis, scientific director of the One Health Genomic Laboratory, and research collaborators travel by boat to remote Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon.

“When researchers work with emerging infectious diseases, they need to go where the pathogens are.”—Jorge Osorio

“When researchers work with emerging infectious diseases, they need to go where the pathogens are,” Osorio says. “You have to do that with a long-term plan. You can’t just take one snapshot with one particular grant. You really require a place in the country where you can develop long-term relationships and provide opportunities to study those diseases. You can also train students and expand your research.”

Osorio’s commitment to developing partnerships with local colleagues and communities—and diving deeply into emerging diseases—led to the 2018 establishment of the Colombia/Wisconsin One Health Consortium. Under Osorio’s directorship, GHI becomes a key collaborator in the consortium with the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and funding from Abbott Laboratories.

GHI plans to establish similar One Health centers in Asia and Africa, opening additional opportunities for UW-Madison faculty, staff, clinicians, students and trainees to collaborate with local communities and colleagues in mutually beneficial partnerships.

“To become the GHI Colombia One Health Center is great news for Colombia and the region, Hernandez-Ortiz says. “Professor Osorio has guided us during the One Health consortium era, and we are now honored to be part of GHI. I foresee a bright future where novel avenues of high impact research will be developed and generated between researchers from UW and Colombia.”

The center has been critical for Osorio as he investigates mosquito-borne diseases. He has tapped into networks of local physicians who take blood samples when they suspect a virus is causing a disease. “We process the sample in the lab and come up with an understanding of what’s happening in those areas,” Osorio says.

With One Health center resources, Osorio followed the emergence of chikungunya and Zika in Colombia, and the program became one of the first to isolate the viruses in the area. The  samples were also quickly available, allowing UW-Madison researchers to both track and look toward vaccines for the diseases.

What is the Colombia/Wisconsin One Health Consortium?

The consortium was established as a strategic inter-institutional alliance to conduct research and surveillance in elements of One Health. Like global health and planetary health, One Health is a concept that the health of humans, animals and the environment are interconnected. The center is committed to research, innovation, and scientific and technological development to manage complex health problems and improve research capacity in the region.

“This has been an unprecedented alliance between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia,” Hernandez-Ortiz says. “The One Health consortium in Colombia started with a seeded commitment that resulted in facilities and projects that built regional capacities, including sequencing, OMICS (various  disciplines in biology used to identify characteristics of molecules), pathogen discovery and fever surveillance in six different regions of Colombia. With these capacities, the One Health consortium was able to be an active participant of the government COVID-19 team in the Departamento de Antioquia.”

A woman works in the Colombia-Wisconsin One Health Lab.
The Colombia-Wisconsin One Health Consortium operates a genomic lab at the Universidad National de Colombia in Medellin with a state-of-the-art BSL2 facility that can analyze a host of samples, from viruses to fungi. (Photo courtesy of the One Health Consorium.)

Colombia is one of the most diverse countries in the world, so it’s possible to study different landscapes, geographies, climates and populations, says Karl Ciuoderis, a UW alumnus and scientific director of the One Health Genomic Laboratory. “All of those factors, plus wildlife diversity, the presence of vectors for diseases and many other concepts like climate change and socio-cultural aspects create the opportunity for the emergence of infectious diseases,” Ciuoderis says.

From infectious diseases to health status, animal health to agriculture, discovering new viruses to manufacturing vaccines, monitoring air quality to nutrition, the consortium works across disciplines. His team has collaborated on projects to advance human, animal and environmental health, including:

  • Identifying pathogens causing fevers
  • Looking at variations in immune responses to SARS-CoV-2
  • Identifying the most prevalent cancers in Antioquia-Colombia
  • Developing a universal swine influenza vaccine
  • Monitoring the prevalence of arbovirus in endemic regions
  • Identifying influenza A in captive wild birds and swine
  • Monitoring the microbiome in bee colonies
  • Identifying variants of SARS-CoV-2

Through the center, UW will share its scientific capabilities, identify knowledge gaps in the ecology of infectious diseases, advance scientific training, build capacity and encourage diversity and equity. “By connecting scientific knowledge, community insights and Indigenous wisdom, the (center) will also offer a framework to move research out of the lab into real-world settings,” Osorio says. “Here, results will translate into action, and partners can immediately assess the social, cultural, political and environmental effects of proposed interventions.”

GHI also hopes to bring new post doctoral fellows and graduate students to the center to conduct research on global health topics.

Tracking parasites in Colombia

Mostafa Zamanian

Funded by a 2020 GHI Seed Grant, Zamanian’s initial findings indicate about half of the people in primarily Indigenous villages in the Colombian Amazon are infected with Mansonella parasites that are transmitted by insects.

“We came in with an initial set of questions, based on what we knew,” Zamanian says. “As we worked with people based in the region for the last couple years, the conversations have led us down completely new roads and to other questions that may be important. Scientists who work there can tell you about local conditions and new ways of looking at them.”

Zamanian hopes to look at the clinical consequences of mansonellonosis and how it affects susceptibility to other infectious diseases. He’s also working with local entomologists to map the insects responsible for spreading it.

Working with the Colombia/Wisconsin center also gave Zamanian his first opportunity to see the effects of parasitic diseases firsthand. “I think it’s important that we help bring more scientific attention to understudied and neglected diseases outside of our borders,” he says.

Zamanian also received a 2022 GHI Visiting Scholar Award to host Mónica Palma from the Colombia/Wisconsin One-Health Consortium. Palma has been a key collaborator in his work. She will train at UW-Madison in the latest diagnostic, pathogen sequencing, and parasite characterization techniques, so they are available for remote areas, such as the municipality of Puerto Nariño in Colombia. She will also help generate epidemiological data and genomic data on parasites that can help in the development of effective chemotherapies.

What makes a healthy gut microbiome?

Amie Eisfeld

Amie Eisfeld, a scientist in Yoshihiro Kawaoka’s lab in Pathobiological Sciences, looks at microbiomes in the human gut. She wants to understand how different cultural and socioeconomic factors and lifestyles affect the microorganisms that live in every human body. “Other research tells us that there are healthy microbiomes and unhealthy versions,” she says. “We’re trying to broaden our understanding of what’s a healthy microbiome and what we may have eliminated already in developed cultures.”

Eisfeld also turned to the Colombia/Wisconsin One Health Consortium to connect to Indigenous and urban communities and compare their microbiomes. She’s examining, for example, how antibiotics may have changed the human microbiome. Communities in the Amazon rainforest have different diets, different interactions with animals and the environment, and little exposure to antibiotics, she says. Her work will broaden the understanding of what makes a healthy human microbiome and its relationship to infectious disease.

“The One Health Center makes our work possible.”—Amie Eisfeld

The One Health Center, which maintains long-term relationships with the Amazon communities, has been key to her work, Eisfeld says. The lab and medical personnel coordinate and communicate with local communities, collect samples and perform some analyses. “The One Health Center makes our work possible,” she says.

“It’s a very collaborative situation,” she adds. “They’re doing things we don’t do. We’re doing things they don’t do. An important thing is to develop scientific capabilities in these places, too. We don’t want to just stand on them and let them do some things for us and take all the glory. The idea is to work collaboratively.”

For more information about the UW-GHI One Health Colombia center, contact


By Ann Grauvogl/ June 30, 2022