Computing method offers shortcut to right flu vax

Investigators at Rice University say that they have devised a computational method that offers a faster and cheaper way to determine the formula for each new flu vaccine. And they say that the new approach could work with bird flu vaccines as well.

Currently researchers use animal models or genetic assays to test proposed flu vaccines. In the new method developed at Rice, flu virus mutations are assigned numerical scores. Michael Deem, Rice's John W. Cox professor of bioengineering, physics and astronomy, and colleagues developed the method so they could assign a number that captured the amount of difference or similarity between flu strains. The method can also be used to test how effective a vaccine will be against divergent strains. To verify this, the team checked their results against flu vaccine data collected by the World Health Organization from 1971 to 2004.

"For seasonal influenza, we validated our model against observational data compiled by the World Health Organization's Global Influenza Surveillance Network," Deem said. "We also ran tests against bird flu data. We found that multiple-component bird flu vaccines appeared to be helpful in controlling the simultaneous multiple introduction of bird flu strains."

Each year, world health authorities create a flu vaccine that protects against three types of seasonal flu--two subtypes of type A flu and one subtype of type B.

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