In much the way meteorologists measure a million different inputs to predict the weather, scientists around the world are constantly collecting and analyzing data to pinpoint what the next flu season will hold and how to prepare for it. And much like the weather, the landscape for flu research is constantly changing.
As quickly as animals and humans develop immunities, flu viruses mutate into different, sometimes stronger strains. This leads to the potential for pandemics that can cripple communities around the globe by spreading quickly without prevention or cure.
Seasonal flu causes approximately 24,000 deaths and more than 200,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year. Vaccination is the primary option to counteract and reduce the impact of influenza outbreaks even though incorrect vaccine strains are sometimes chosen such as during the 2014-2015 season when only 23 percent effectiveness occurred.
To eradicate risk, scientists must find a way to stay at least one step ahead of virus mutations— That's why a Mississippi State students and faculty are collaborating with global research teams to look into the future and develop new defenses against flu’s mounting threat to world populations.
Powered with a major grant from the National Institutes of Health and led by MSU’s Dr. Henry Wan, researchers are helping accelerate expensive, time-consuming analysis conducted by thousands of scientists at more than 130 influenza centers in 106 countries. The goal of the team is to help prevent, diagnose and treat pandemic flus and other illnesses.
The Mississippi State team’s "machine learning" and “big data” process takes the analysis out of research labs and instead uses computational methods to more quickly discover critical changes or mutations among viruses. This information is entered into a computerized model that determines the best vaccines for combating new and existing strains.
The model also translates data into mathematical formulas that generate generational maps and provide an in-depth look at flu viruses over time and in different world populations. This kind of mapping helps track how viruses mutate and how they spread.
Maps provide the kind of critical information that can uncover greater understanding, like the fact that one particular virus vaccine has been updated more than 29 times since 1968.
While computers are providing a major boost in the race to develop effective vaccines, the global impact of MSU's research is ultimately all too human.