July 22, 1998 LOS ALAMOS, N.M., July 13, 1998 - Medical researchers around the world can now tap into the world's most comprehensive collection of genetic information about the influenza virus. The new database will help scientists understand how the flu bug mutates and will aid in the development of vaccines.
Los Alamos National Laboratory's Influenza Sequence Database will be introduced to prospective users at the American Society for Virology meeting this week in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"Unless there is a central collection point for all the published and unpublished influenza sequences, there is no way to make all the necessary data available to the research community," said database manager Catherine Macken. "With an international repository, we can conduct cohesive analysis rather than patchwork research around the world."
A sequence is the blueprint of the genetic code of the virus. The database contains viral sequence data, results from immunological studies and information on viral protein structures. Sequences are collected continually in many countries, but much of this valuable information is not published. Researchers now can contribute to and use the Los Alamos flu sequence database, allowing them to compare older viral species and strains with those currently in circulation.
Los Alamos, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory, is working with the University of California and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand the database. Currently the Los Alamos database holds all the influenza sequences published in GenBank, a database managed by the National Institutes of Health that contains sequences published in scientific journals. After verification and annotation, unpublished sequences collected around the world will be added.
"This database is a model for the type of tool that would also be useful in tracking the spread of more deadly diseases, whether they are naturally occurring or the result of intentional biological releases," said Alan Perelson, leader of Los Alamos' Theoretical Biology and Biophysics Group. "Los Alamos is actively involved in developing new, cutting-edge capabilities to reduce threats to our national security. The influenza database, though not directly part of this effort, shows the sort of expertise Los Alamos can bring to problems of national and global importance."
More than just a library of gene fragments, the new database is annotated to include essential background information about the sequences. For example, researchers need to know how a virus was grown before it was sequenced, because growth methods introduce mutations which may affect analysis, said Macken.
The database will allow in-depth study of the ever-changing structure of the flu virus. To analyze telltale patterns in the sequences, Macken and her colleagues are developing software tools to visually and statistically assess the variation in sequences.
"We are now confident we have a quality database and it will be a springboard for the development of new scientific and analytical tools," said Macken.
Armed with information about what forms of the flu are appearing or moving around the world, researchers will have a better chance of identifying new strains and advising health officials on where to commit limited resources.
"Researchers can study a newly reported virus in the context of those seen already," said Macken. "If it appears to be very different, that knowledge will help the World Health Organization choose the annual vaccine."
Los Alamos is building on expertise and accompanying analytical tools from its NIH-funded HIV Sequence Database and HIV Molecular Immunology Database.
Access to Los Alamos' Influenza Sequence Database is available on the World Wide Web at: http://www-flu.lanl.gov.
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for DOE.
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