A new computer model could help scientists predict when a
particular strain of avian influenza might become infectious from bird to
human, according to a report to be published in the International Journal Data Mining and Bioinformatics.
Chuang Ma of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and
colleagues at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan and the
Wuhan Institute of Virology, explain that since 1997 several strains of avian
influenza A virus (AIV), commonly known as "bird flu" have infected
people directly from their natural bird hosts leading to numerous deaths.
Tracking the new flu
The most recent outbreak is "H7N9" bird flu, which
emerged in China in February 2013. The team has now developed a computational
technique that allows them to predict whether or not a given strain of bird flu
has the potential to infect people. Such a tool would allow the health
authorities to monitor specific strains in among wild and domestic birds and so
predict with more certainty whether or not that strain is likely to cause a
global pandemic of influenza in people.
The method is based on analysing ninety signature positions
in the inner protein sequences of different strains of the virus, the
researchers explain. These positions are then correlated with more than 500
different physical and chemical characteristics of the virus.
The researchers then use data mining techniques to match up
specific physicochemical characteristics with bird to human infectivity. This
can then be tracked back to the presence of mutations in the proteins of
emerging strains. The team has successfully validated their system, which they
refer to simply as "A2H", against known strains of bird flu and those
that are infectious to people.
"A2H might be useful in the early warning of
interspecies transmission of AIV, which is beneficial to public health,"
the team says. "It will be further validated and upgraded when more virus
strains become available," they add. A similar approach might also one day
be extended to other viruses that emerge from non-human hosts and become
infectious to people.