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Computer simulations predict spread of HIV

Published on 03/08/18 at 09:10am

Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a computer simulation that is able to accurately predict the transmission of HIV across populations.

The simulations, which were outlined in the journal Nature Biotechnology, have subsequently shown to be consistent with actual DNA data obtained from a pre-existing HIV database, which had been developed and maintained by the Los Alamos lab.

Due to the fact that the HIV virus is constantly mutating, the ‘genetic signatures’ it leaves behind provide a traceable path which researchers can follow. As such researchers were able to determine the origin and time frame of infections.

Thomas Leitner, a computational biologist who led the Los Alamos study explained that: "We looked for special genetic patterns that we had seen in the simulations, and we can confirm that these patterns also hold for real data covering the entire epidemic"

In developing the simulation, Leitner and the study’s co-author, Ethan Romero-Severson, utilised phylogenetic data to develop a map of the spread of the virus, as they traced infection from 955 pairs of people in which the transmitter and recipient of the virus had been identified.

The authors noted that: "These HIV transmissions had known linkage based on epidemiological information such as partner studies, mother-to-child transmission, pairs identified by contact tracing, and criminal cases."

The researchers now hope to develop computational tools that will assist public health agencies in tracking the spread of HIV. The data has already sparked collaborations between the study’s authors and the Michigan and Colorado state health agencies. Leitner commented that “We hope these tools will help to hinder new infections in the future.” The methods may also be applicable to other rapidly evolving infectious diseases.  

Louis Goss

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