A Mississippi State University researcher has found that biology and computer science make the perfect combination for tracking animal ‘flu viruses.

A Mississippi State University (MSU) researcher has found that biology and computer science make the perfect combination for tracking animal ‘flu viruses.

While doing graduate work in China, Henry Wan became the first scientist to isolate the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Soon after this discovery, highly pathogenic H5N1 outbreaks occurred in poultry in Asia, Europe and Africa. More than 440 confirmed human cases across 15 countries were also caused by this virus. About 60 per cent of which were fatal.

Dr Henry WanAccording to MSU, Dr Wan has developed computer programs that provide information on each one of the more than 20,000 viruses’ gene segments. These programs display each gene segment and provide a map showing the distances between the segments. This information is then used to determine how the segments relate to each other and group together to form different influenza viruses.

He said: “Influenza viruses are always changing. They reproduce to become more fit, or virulent, to continue to spread. The program aims to seek a better understanding of why they mutate and how they spread. Knowing this helps us more accurately predict when new viruses will arise.”

Dr Wan began developing the programs when he was a graduate student at MSU where he earned a master’s in computer science and a doctorate in veterinary medicine. He now works closely with computer science experts to ensure the programs are tailored to exactly what he needs.

In addition to understanding the relationship between influenza virus gene segments, Dr Wan and his research colleagues seek to determine what environmental factors affect the spread of viruses. Their long-term goal is to use the research on influenza viruses to aid in the development and production of vaccines. Knowing the genetic code of viruses and predicting their mutation and movement can help scientists stop them before they become widespread.

Dr Wan said: “Our research on virus mutation and spread can help predict new strains of the virus and eventually aid us in foreseeing epidemics and pandemics. That information could be used to develop vaccines before the epidemic or pandemic were to hit.”

Photo by Tom Thompson
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