Rapid alert system for scientists

Infection biology is not the only field with an interest in researching influenza viruses. Computer scientists are also making a crucial contribution to this research field: At the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken they developed the software for a database that acts as a rapid alert system. The support of the Max Planck Foundation enabled the consolidation of the database so that it could be handed over to the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Thanks to the financial support the Max-Planck-Foundation provided for this project, scientists were able to carry out pioneering research on flu vaccines, drug development and risk assessment.

The key to understanding the new variants of flu pathogens lies in their genome, which is responsible for their structure and function. To successfully study infectious diseases, scientists must have access to the most comprehensive collection of the pathogenic variants’ genomes available – such collections form the essential basis of all modern biological and medical research on infectious diseases.

The capacity of flu viruses to mutate is almost uncanny. Their genome consists of eight segments that are constantly changing. Moreover, in the case of double infections, they can replace elements of their genetic material. Every year they target the weak points of the human immune system with new challenges, making it difficult for medical science to prepare for the next explosion of viruses in advance. Risk forecasts would be easier to provide if more data were available.

For this reason, flu data from all over the world are now being collected by the international research project GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data). Apart from genetic information on flu pathogens, the project collects additional laboratory data and insights into the biological characteristics of the viruses. These can be used, for example, for simulations of the spread and possible genetic development of a virus. The questions being asked here include: Could a particular flu pathogen develop into a possible killer virus? How far removed is the genome of the current pathogen from such a mutation? And how much time would it take for this to happen?

The answers to these questions have not yet been found - however, scientists are on the right track with GISAID: the World Health Organization already uses the GISAID data to identify virus strains for global vaccine production.

The bioinformaticians at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics had already gained experience in the development of this type of software through their work on the AIDS virus HIV. For this project, they developed an award-winning program that helps to adapt drug cocktails to the mutations of the AIDS virus in a patient’s body. This achievement is also based on a large database, in which the gene profiles of the HIV viruses and their reactions to drugs are recorded.

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