OMAHA – A group of researchers from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) will be recognized by the U.S. government on Tuesday, May 12, in Washington D.C. for efforts to help combat the spread of the Chikungunya (CHICK-UN-GOON-YAH) virus.
Less than a year after Nebraska reported its first case of Chikungunya, a team of researchers and scientists from UNO and UNMC have been announced as one of the less than 15 international groups that will be recognized for their efforts as part of a worldwide contest organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to help predict the spread of the virus in order to improve medical response efforts.
In August of last year, DARPA launched the competition to develop methods of tracking and predicting infection rates in North, Central and South America based on two hypothetical cases of the virus in the Americas.
UNO and UNMC’s team competed against 465 other groups to be identified as having the best-proposed method of tracking the disease.
“This award recognizes the expertise of University of Nebraska researchers and scientists in bioinformatics, data analytics and predictive analysis of complex data,” explained Team Lead Ann Fruhling, Director of the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics at UNO’s College of Information Science and Technology. “I believe our multi-disciplinary team approach was a critical factor to our success and we look forward to future opportunities to research and combat national bio-security threats and concerns.”
At Tuesday’s event, representatives from the team will present their research, which implements a previously existing epidemiological model, called SEIR, which categorizes a population into different disease susceptibility levels. The team has modified the SEIR model to add categorizations of mosquito lifespan, the area’s average monthly temperature, and other related variables to determine the likelihood of disease transmission across the Americas.
One of the team’s researchers, Dr. Steven Hinrichs, Professor and Chair of the UNMC Department of Pathology and Microbiology, said the methodology could help prevent or limit the disease's influence, particularly if the virus starts to appear this summer in the United States.
"That is why we're developing these strategies these research strategies - to monitor to make sure we're watching for it very closely and to determine what could cause it to spread more rapidly," he said. "We actually believe that there could well be an outbreak of chikungunya in some parts of the United States this summer as the temperatures warm up and this particularly mosquito is able to move further north."
Using the data, researchers were able to estimate the potential rise in cases in a given country over a period of months given these factors. It is the first time such a model has been applied to a real-life scenario.
The partnership between UNO and UNMC and the possibility of future applications of the group’s research not only represent the strong ties between each of the NU campuses, but also the mission of the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska (NSRI), which, in 2012, was selected as the home for one of 13 Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Centers, or UARCs, across the country.
The team consists of five UNO researchers and two UNMC scientists:
- Kate Cooper, Ph.D., Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Interdisciplinary Informatics
- Ann Fruhling
- Robin Gandhi, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Information Assurance
- Kiran Bastola, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Bioinformatics
- Dario Ghersi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Bioinformatics
- Steven Hinrichs
- Marsha Morien, Instructor of Health Services Research and Administration
According to the Centers for Disease Control website, Chikungunya was first identified in the 1950s in Africa, but the first case of the disease in the Americas was found in the Caribbean in 2013.
The disease is transmitted to people by mosquitos and the most common symptoms are fever and severe joint pain. While the disease only rarely results in death, the symptoms are often severe and can become disabling.
Nebraska was one of a handful of states who identified cases of Chikungunya in 2014 with the first case being confirmed in June. Ultimately, four cases of the virus were identified in the state.
DARPA was established in 1958 by the U.S. Federal Government to bolster U.S. national security and maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military. To fulfill its mission, DAPRA relies on diverse performers to apply multi-disiplinary approached to both advance knowledge through basic research and create innovative technologies that address current practical problems through applied research.
For questions about Tuesday’s event and the research team from UNO and UNMC please contact one of the following representatives:
Charley Reed, UNO Associate Director of Media Relations
Vicky Cerino, UNMC Media Relations Coordinator
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.
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About the University of Nebraska Medical Center
We are Nebraska Medicine and UNMC. Our mission is to lead the world in transforming lives to create a healthy future for all individuals and communities through premier educational programs, innovative research and extraordinary patient care.