UCI joins international effort to model influenza outbreaks

February 01, 2006

A team led by UC Irvine evolutionary biologist Robin Bush will receive $1.5 million over the next five years to develop computer-based simulations of pandemic flu and other infectious disease outbreaks. The research could help officials better understand how to prepare for and contain the spread of such diseases.

Bush, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will develop computational models to analyze the evolutionary changes that occurred during past transfers of flu from birds to humans. These analyses will provide the basis for mathematical models that evaluate the risk of future pandemic strains. The team includes Steven Frank, UCI professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Nancy Cox, chief of the Influenza Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Bush's team is one of four new scientific groups joining the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study, an ongoing effort by the National Institutes of Health to better understand the spread of contagious diseases and their impact on public health.

"This grant is important for increasing collaboration between the experts in computer modeling from the NIH/MIDAS program and the scientists at the Influenza Branch of the CDC," Bush said. "This computer modeling should help us improve our understanding of the data and better guide future policy in the area of infectious disease outbreaks."

Overall, the new research groups will receive a total of approximately $7.8 million over the next five years and will collaborate with four existing MIDAS teams. The results could aid health officials and policymakers in developing preparedness plans for outbreaks. In addition to their individual research projects, the new MIDAS teams will contribute to the network's pandemic influenza modeling project. This project involves simulating outbreaks of a deadly flu strain in different regions of the world and then evaluating the effects of various intervention measures, such as vaccination or school closures, on containing or slowing disease spread.

Bush has published several groundbreaking papers on influenza evolution. Human influenza viruses evolve so rapidly that the vaccine must be updated yearly. In a 1999 paper in the journal Science, Bush presented a method for predicting evolutionary change in the influenza virus based on patterns of change in viral surface proteins. More recently, in the journal Nature, she showed through computer models that a short-lived non-specific immune response might explain why as new influenza strains emerge, previously circulating strains become extinct.
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MIDAS was created in 2004 by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of NIH, to harness computing skills for enhancing the country's ability to respond to disease epidemics and bioterrorism. MIDAS brings together interdisciplinary teams of scientists with expertise ranging from mathematics and computer science to epidemiology, genetics and public health.

About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,400 faculty members. The second-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3.3 billion. For more UCI news, visit www.today.uci.edu.

UCI maintains an online directory of faculty available as experts to the media. To access, visit www.today.uci.edu/experts.

University of California - Irvine

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