Predicting the Next Influenza.

Wednesday, July 14th , the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics (CCDD) at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) did more than collect acronyms, they hosted Taijiao Jiang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Jiang, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and black pants cinched tightly at the waist, spoke on modeling the antigenic evolution of the influenza virus.

I know, it sounds complicated, and the science is–lots of technology stuff, not my thing–but the idea is not.

Using computer simulations, Jiang and his team map out how different strains of influenza are related and then find patterns in their evolution. They specifically look for genetic mutations that accumulate in antibody binding sites. When the binding sites on the virus change, human antibodies for previous strains of influenza don’t recognize it and can’t fight it.

Because the influenza virus evolves rapidly, both the human immune system and vaccines against the virus are constantly one step behind.

The cost? Epidemics that kill between 250 000 and 500 000 people around the world each year. Influenza pandemics can kill tens of millions.

Three influenza pandemics with death tolls in the millions have occurred in the 20th century and no one knows when the next one might hit. Anyone remember the swine flu, I mean, H1N1 scare?

Luckily, Jiang’s computer simulations have the potential to predict future structures of the virus–information that could lead to vaccines that preempt the next evolution of influenza.

I know, sounds like a lecture made for TED. But, since most of the HSPH attendees were visibly confused after Jiang explained his research in labored English, influenza evolution mapping may need a better spokesperson to get the word out.

For those of you brave enough to learn more about Jiang’s methods, click here.

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3 thoughts on “Predicting the Next Influenza.

  1. regarding language barriers and scientific presentations – did Jiang make use of non-verbal graphics and visualization of his data and research? The strength of TED-like presentations is the synthesis of science and technology through means of designed communication. Maybe scientific graphic design can be an emerging field

    • Hi Dan!

      Jiang had a power point with graphics, but they were not all clearly labeled. When one woman asked a simple question about what a star-burst graph represented, it took a few minutes and a lot of audience participation for Jiang to answer her question.

      I agree that the strength of TED lectures is partly in the well-designed digital presentations that accompany them, and it could certainly be an emerging field. The slides in those presentations are usually quite spare, with one major idea per slide. If digital presentations were designed to be more intuitive for the audience, it could help science translate to different cultures.

      Exploring Origins is an example of a lab already working on this: http://bit.ly/cJX1D6

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Pingback: Influenza Pandemic Conspiracies. « The Human Side of Hospitals.

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