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Bird Flu Computer Database Helps Scientists Develop a Vaccine


A computer database in the United States is helping researchers find a human vaccine for the bird flu virus -- a disease that kills domesticated fowl, but could mutate to infect humans. The database is located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the western state of New Mexico, where information on many types of flu, including avian viruses, has been compiled from scientists around the world.

During the past two years, a strain of the bird flu virus has spread from Asia to Eastern Europe, most recently in Turkey.

Humans are believed to contract bird flu only through close contact with infected birds, but scientists fear millions of people could die in the future if the virus combines with human flu strains and produces a new strain that is highly contagious to people.

Scientist Catherine Macken manages an influenza database at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"If you have a single cell that's affected by the two types of viruses, they can mix and match,” she says. “So you'll get a new virus form that has some characteristics of a bird virus, some characteristics of a human virus, and if it managed to transmit human-to-human it's got bird characteristics that humans have never seen before, and it becomes very potent in terms of its effect on the human population."

The database keeps track of international bird flu research, which is important since the viruses change constantly.

"We provide a web interface for people to access the data,” Ms. Macken says. “We also developed tools that they can use to analyze the data. So the kind of people who would use it would be people at research institutions actually worldwide."

Scientists do not know exactly how avian viruses cross over to humans. Ms. Macken is doing research to try to figure that out.

"What I do is really look at avian viruses and get statistics on the avian viruses. I look at human viruses and get statistics on human viruses and then I make comparisons.

The findings are then tested in a laboratory using sequencing -- the genetic code of the viruses.

"You're looking for trends in the evolution of the sequences. You're looking for relationships between the sequences, says Ms. Macken. “For example, is the bird flu in Asia, as you see it in Thailand, anything like the bird flu in China?"

There are currently no available vaccines to prevent bird flu in humans and it remains a threat.