Bioinformatics Tackles the Flu

At first, it looks like a normal conference room: bland walls, long table, high-backed chairs. But then the lights dim, and a screen on the far wall begins to glow. I put on my 3D glasses.

A flu virus jumps off the screen. Not literally, thankfully. On the fourth floor of a non-descript building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I sit with a team of scientists from Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of the multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi. In this room, the team uses virtual reality-like technology to analyze 3D images of the flu virus particles—currently a large purple and yellow orb dotted with bumpy red spokes—and the human antibodies that attack them. It’s a key part of Sanofi’s bioinformatics effort, which applies tools like structural modeling and genetic mining to improve influenza vaccine options.

“The 3D visualization lab allows us to perform visual analysis of these molecules at atomic-level detail,” says Eliud Oloo, manager of the Structure, Genomics and Informatics group at Sanofi Pasteur. He pulls up image after image of the virus onto the screen, sometimes zooming to the level of individual hydrogen bonds. That detail—and being able to see it in a realistic, 3D way—is helping to design vaccines that are more effective and last longer, says Oloo.

The team’s goal is to help produce what they call a “broadly protective influenza vaccine,” or BPIV, which would protect an individual from many flu strains,…[Read more]