A predictive fitness model for influenza

February 26, 2014, Columbia University

Researchers at Columbia University and the University of Cologne have created a new model to successfully predict the evolution of the influenza virus from one year to the next. This advance in our understanding of influenza suggests a new, systematic way to select influenza vaccine strains. The findings appear in Nature on Feb. 26.

The flu is one of the major infectious diseases in humans. Seasonal strains of the A virus account for about half a million deaths per year. In a concerted effort, WHO and its Collaborating Centers have closely monitored the evolution of the seasonal H3N2 influenza strains for over 60 years. Based on these data, influenza strains are selected for vaccine production twice per year. Because influenza is a fast-evolving pathogen, the selection of optimal vaccines is a challenging global health issue.

In recent years, it became clear that the evolution of the flu is a complex process. Different compete with each other; the race is about how to successfully infect humans. This prompted Marta Łuksza, of Columbia's Biological Sciences department and Michael Lässig of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Cologne, to ask the question: Can we predict which of these competitors will win the race? "This was a challenge for an evolutionary biologist because there are very few systems in the wild for which quantitative predictions of their evolution are at all feasible," says Łuksza. "It was also a computational and theoretical challenge. While traditional evolutionary thinking is about reconstruction of the past, we had to develop ideas on how to reach into the future." Most importantly, the scientists had to find out which part of the system can be actually predicted and which are random. In their approach they used ideas from physics and computer science.

Łuksza and Lässig used Darwin's principle: survival of the fittest. But what determines how fit an is? First, they considered innovation: the virus had to keep a high rate of mutations in order to escape from human immune response. But they also included conservation: these mutations must not compromise the essential functions of a virus, such as the correct folding of its proteins. Through studying the genomes of the virus, they devised a way to predict which have the optimal combination of innovation and conservation.

While Łuksza and Lässig focused on influenza, their approach highlights a general link between evolution and its consequences for epidemiology that is relevant for many fast-evolving pathogens. In a broader context, it touches upon the fundamental question of how predictable biological evolution is. "There is clearly no general answer to this question," says Łuksza. "But our analysis shows under what auspices limited predictions may be successful." Further extensive tests with global influenza data would help determine whether their method would lead to improved vaccines.

Explore further: Evolutionary analysis improves ability to predict the spread of flu

More information: Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature13087

Related Stories

Evolutionary analysis improves ability to predict the spread of flu

October 1, 2012
With flu season around the corner, getting a seasonal vaccine might be one of the best ways to prevent people from getting sick. These vaccines only work, however, if their developers have accurately predicted which strains ...

Novel approach for influenza vaccination shows promise in early animal testing

May 22, 2013
A new approach for immunizing against influenza elicited a more potent immune response and broader protection than the currently licensed seasonal influenza vaccines when tested in mice and ferrets. The vaccine concept, which ...

Study suggests potential hurdle to universal flu vaccine development may be overcome

August 15, 2012
In the quest for a universal influenza vaccine—one that elicits broadly neutralizing antibodies that can protect against most or all strains of flu virus—scientists have faced a sobering question: Does pre-existing ...

'Universal' influenza vaccine development underway in Europe

December 4, 2013
A newly launched European project is set to take a major step toward the development of a universal flu vaccine. It aims to counter the emergence of new strains and seasonal epidemics.

Prediction of seasonal flu strains improves chances of universal vaccine

March 12, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers have determined a way to predict and protect against new strains of the flu virus, in the hope of improving immunity against the disease.

There's still time to get a flu shot

February 5, 2014
(HealthDay)—It's still not too late to get a flu shot, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Zika may hijack mother-fetus immunity route

November 14, 2018
To cross the placenta, Zika virus may hijack the route by which acquired immunity is transferred from mother to fetus, new research suggests.

Maternally acquired Zika immunity can increase dengue disease severity in mouse pups

November 14, 2018
To say that the immune system is complex is an understatement: an immune response protective in one context can turn deadly over time, as evidenced by numerous epidemiological studies on dengue infection, spanning multiple ...

New research aims to help improve uptake of hepatitis C testing

November 14, 2018
New research published in Scientific Reports shows persisting fears about HIV infection may impact testing uptake for the hepatitis C Virus (HCV).

Discovery suggests new route to fight infection, disease

November 14, 2018
New research reveals how a single protein interferes with the immune system when exposed to the bacterium that causes Legionnaires' disease, findings that could have broad implications for development of medicines to fight ...

Synthetic DNA-delivered antibodies protect against Ebola in preclinical studies

November 13, 2018
Scientists at The Wistar Institute and collaborators have successfully engineered novel DNA-encoded monoclonal antibodies (DMAbs) targeting Zaire Ebolavirus that were effective in preclinical models. Study results, published ...

Scientists illuminate causes of hepatitis B virus-associated acute liver failure

November 13, 2018
National Institutes of Health scientists and their collaborators found that hepatitis B virus (HBV)-associated acute liver failure (ALF)—a rare condition that can turn fatal within days without liver transplantation—results ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.