Name: Elodie Ghedin
Affiliation: Professor of Biology and Global Public Health
Director, Center for Genomics and Systems Biology
New York University
New York, US
Could you tell me a bit about what your research entails?
As a genomicist and molecular virologist, I am very interested in characterizing influenza virus diversity within and across infected hosts to better understand the evolutionary dynamics of the virus. In these analyses we also probe how the host environment—including co-morbidities, co-infections, and the respiratory microbiome—can influence the virus genetic diversity and transmission.
More recently, I have become interested in the integration of multi-scale data collected over the course of influenza infections to identify key drivers of disease severity.
How did you become interested in influenza research?
I was a molecular parasitologist working at the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) and got interested in developing high throughput genomic approaches to characterize viruses (the ultimate parasites!). An Influenza Genome Project had just been awarded to TIGR by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIH) and I was asked to lead it. It seems silly now but at the time it was a challenge to figure out how to process hundreds of human influenza samples in a systematic way so that sequence quality was high. This was in the pre-Next Generation Sequencing era. Our first 1000 genomes was a big celebration.
In what ways has the 1918 pandemic most influenced your research, and the wider virology and public health field?
I think the concept of a viral epidemic was relatively new back then. The epidemiology of the 1918 pandemic is fascinating with 3 different waves of variable severity, the global spread (due to a world war deploying soldiers across the globe), and most deaths due to secondary bacterial infections (pneumonia). These are all aspects that seem pretty common to us now and that we systematically think about when considering pandemics.
What do you see as the biggest accomplishments/breakthroughs in the field since the 1918 pandemic? Are there any papers that you feel are must reads for those that aren’t familiar with the field (and briefly, why)?
Genomics has certainly overhauled the field enabling the study of flu evolution, phylogenetics, and pathogenesis, and allowing us to better understand past epidemics and pandemics.
Jeff Taubenberger’s sequencing of the 1918 virus collected from lung tissue of victims of the 1918 pandemic was, to me, a turning point (Taubenberger et al, 1997, Science 275:1793-6.)
A very interesting paper that provides an extensive view of how seasonal epidemics circulate around the globe Bedford, T. et al. (2015) Global circulation patterns of seasonal influenza viruses vary with antigenic drift. Nature 523, 217–220.
What do you see as the main challenges for research in your part of the field in the coming years?
Studying flu in natural infections (rather than in model animals like mice, for example) using a systems approach is a main challenge (and may continue to be) for 2 reasons: a) there are a lot of variables that are difficult to control and that need to be considered, and b) the flu field in general doesn’t yet systematically embrace interdisciplinary teams of experimentalists and computational biologists. So the challenge is to pursue better integration across these disciplines so we can address novel questions.