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Scientists Scrape the Web for Unconventional Data to Fight Zika

House Zika briefing


AAAS moderator Sean Gallagher, right, introduces John Brownstein, center, and Hongjun Song, left, at a House briefing on the Zika virus. | Craig Poskanzer/AAAS 

Scientists are harvesting data from the internet, social media, blog posts, news media, Google search terms and government sites, and transforming it into predictive models to map the spread of the Zika virus, according to a presentation before a bipartisan House briefing hosted by AAAS on 6 June.

Research teams from diverse fields – biomedical engineering, neurology, neuroscience, pharmacology and cell biology – also are working together to demonstrate how the virus destroys vital fetal brain cells, reduces fetal brain cell growth, and wreaks havoc on other parts of the brain, said Hongjun Song, a briefing speaker who is director of the Stem Cell Program at the Institute for Cell Engineering and professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Scouring the web and social media sites for data, and the formation of multi-disciplinary scientific teams offers a window onto the quickly moving and novel approaches being used to tackle the public health threat posed by the Zika virus.  

In late May, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health panel estimated it will cost six southern states where the virus is expected to first impact the United States more than $2 billion in medical care and lost wages, an economic model that assumes the virus will infect only 2% of the region’s population.

Southern states are already monitoring the spread of the Zika virus, and, going forward, enhanced, predictive tools will become instrumental to addressing the public health risk.

John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and a Harvard Medical School professor, said during his presentation that his researchers have been collecting patient-generated information from alternative data sources and converting it into an early warning system for disease.

“This is a field called digital disease detection and it has been emerging over a decade or so. It can transform the way we get insights into public health issues,” Brownstein said, noting it enables researchers to track a virus from location to location. “Essentially it tries to be the for disease outbreak.”

The surveillance system has expanded the reach of traditional public health monitoring systems. It has been successfully used to pinpoint, monitor and predict the spread of the H1N1 virus when it first flared up in Veracruz, Mexico in 2009; the H7N9 in China in 2013, and the spread of Ebola outbreak in West Africa 2014, Brownstein added.

Now, it is being deployed to monitor the Zika as it spreads beyond Brazil, where reports last August of fetal deaths and newborns with brain disorders including microcephaly, a devastating condition that results in abnormally small brains and heads, began to trickle in. Since then, the disease has moved through the Americas and is approaching the United States.

The virus is spread by two types of the mosquito species Aedes, the Aegypi and the Albopictus; by infected pregnant women passing it on to their fetus; and through sexual transmission. The migration and locations of Aedes mosquitos are also being watched and analyzed, Brownstein said.

With the aid of several online tools including smart maps built from government transportation data and other online health statistics, and mobile phone apps that collect patient information, scientists and researchers can cull the material for insights about symptoms, dates, times, location of infections, Brownstein said. The data is augmented with patient driven information, and up-to-date reports from medical teams and health organizations on the ground.

“We want to get the public back into public health,” Brownstein said. 

The surveillance app provides researchers real-time information and the ability to spot emerging diseases across borders including in nations that have limited infrastructure, or where there is a lack of transparency by governments. Public health workers can be alerted, and in some instances patients can be advised where to find vaccines.

In the lab, Song sketched equally urgent efforts ongoing at Johns Hopkins to deepen understanding of what the Zika virus does to the brain so vaccines and therapies can be developed. He said trials of a vaccine will begin in the fall.

A Johns Hopkins study earlier this year confirmed that the Zika virus works by attacking the brain’s cortical neural progenitor cells that eventually become the brain’s cortex that controls many higher functions. From there, the virus triggers brain cells to die off, and blunts the size of the brain, according to Song.

After Zika takes over the neural stem cells “it turns them into a virus factory,” he said. His team is working to uncover any other neurological disorders that may be set off.

Three high school students, who included Song’s son and two others from New York and Texas, were responsible for developing a unique tool that enhanced and sped up the research, Song said. The students used a 3-D printer to design a smaller and more cost-efficient bioreactor – a miniaturized culture device where neural stems cells are grown and eventually become small laboratory brains for research. An understanding of Lego blocks sparked the innovation, Song said.

Zika also attacks supporting brain cells – astrocytes – essential to brain growth, and, importantly, the hijacked astrocytes, remain in the brain throughout life.  “The [Zika infected] cells can serve as a reservoir for a virus throughout life, and, as you can imagine, that will have a large consequence beyond microcephaly,” he said.

Going forward, the development of a reliable diagnostic kit is much needed to enable hospital, clinic, and public health workers to confirm that patients seeking care are either infected or free of the virus; and while an effective vaccine is being tested, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should screen existing antiviral medicines to determine if any can protect people from contracting the virus, Song said.

The House briefing was the third hosted this year by the AAAS Office of Government Relations with the support of the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that promotes brain research and related educational initiatives, and in conjunction with the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican, and Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat.  The briefings have been a staple for six years.

[Associated image: Gordon Zammit/AdobeStock]