iSGTW Feature - Pacific Rim Researchers Collaborate to Study Avian Flu

Feature - Pacific Rim Researchers Collaborate to Study Avian Flu

Nations with confirmed cases of the H5N1 avian influenza as of February 2007.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Hawaii will use bioinformatics, grid computing and networking infrastructure, as well as collaborative ties to Asian institutions, to learn more about avian flu, in hopes of helping to head off a much-feared pandemic in the region of the world where the disease has already cost human lives.

"We will use modern high-throughput biology to annotate the biological structures of different subtypes of the avian influenza virus, at the same time as we study their variations," said principal investigator Peter Arzberger, director of Life Science Initiatives at UC San Diego. "We will also construct a grid infrastructure to support avian flu research-an infrastructure that could one day handle research on other infectious diseases as well."

"Fighting a pandemic will also be easier," Arzberger added, "if we put in place the infrastructure to replicate data, support medical informatics, and even assist in remote diagnosis."

UC San Diego will lead the one-year project, with more than $350,000 in funding from the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, part of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command. TATRC invests in telemedicine and advanced medical technologies in order to deliver world-class health care to military personnel. The increasing frequency of biological events relevant to national security, and current disease surveillance systems in the United States require an integrated computational environment to support easy access to a set of universal tools, novel algorithmic approaches and tracking mechanisms for reproducibility at a global level.

Having Asian researchers involved in the TATRC-funded project lends an added dimension of urgency and depth to the U.S. research program.

"Avian flu is very important to sites worldwide, but especially in Asia, where most of the known cases have occurred," said Wilfred Li, executive director of the UC San Diego-based National Biomedical Computation Resource. "This partnership will give U.S. researchers enhanced access to new genomic information as it becomes available in the region. It will also promote global cooperation in case of a flu pandemic."

Institutions in three Asian nations will leverage TATRC's investment by funding their own researchers to work with their counterparts in California and Hawaii, as part of their ongoing collaboration in the National Science Foundation-funded Pacific Rim Applications and Grid Middleware Assembly (PRAGMA).

Five non-U.S. partners have pledged to fund collaboration on the avian flu virus project: Japan's National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, China's Jilin University and Computer Network Information Center, as well as the Korea Institute for Science and Technology Information and Konkuk University.

Flu vaccines are usually developed using attenuated viruses (viruses that have been made less virulent), but the new focus is on the use of reverse genetics techniques to combat emerging bird flu pandemic threats. Researchers intend to characterize the function of the influenza viruses using a structure-based approach, develop simulations of the molecular dynamics involving interactions among major factors that may determine the virulence of a virus and test whether the multinational collaboration can establish a successful, large-scale, distributed computational data grid.

Much of the nitty-gritty work on the avian flu project will be done by students, at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

"We'll be engaging students from the above institutions as an international research team," said Li. "We will also send U.S. students and graduate researchers to work in the labs of our partners around Asia-giving those students an experience that will equip them to do ongoing research in this field."

"The next step for PRAGMA is a pragmatic one," said Arzberger "to demonstrate that international team science can address pressing challenges in a way that might not be possible in one institution or just one country."

-Doug Ramsey, UCSD

Adapted with permission. The full article is available on the University of California, San Diego Web site.