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UTHSC Team Receives $2.84 Million To Study Flu Infections

Amber Smith, PhD

Amber M. Smith, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), is the lead investigator on a new $2.84 million award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The award will support a team lead by Dr. Smith to develop a new computational approach to better understand flu infection.

Morgan Craig, PhD, researcher at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Centre and assistant professor of Mathematics and Statistics at the Université de Montréal, is the co-principal investigator. Klaus Schughart, PhD, visiting professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry at UTHSC, is a co-investigator. 

Influenza infections range from asymptomatic to deadly. How a patient fares depends on a variety of factors, including geography, genetics, and/or any underlying health conditions. In addition, the virus itself can lead to different infection trajectories, immune responses, and outcomes.

In this study, Dr. Smith’s team will use a new computational approach to simulate individual flu patients under a variety of different conditions. The team will use these simulations to analyze different patient responses to infection and treatment, to test analytical predictions of infection risk, and to define biomarkers that predict infection severity. 

“The recent COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that respiratory infections can be different for different people. The same is true for influenza. It also highlighted how little we know about what causes them to be so heterogenous,” Dr. Smith said. “Our recent work on modeling COVID-19 suggested that small changes in immune responses would be sufficient, but we know that genetics and the environment someone lives in can also change their baseline level of immunity. With so many factors at play, it’s difficult to understand which ones have a role and whether they are meaningful with respect to outcome. Fortunately, mathematics gives us the ability to tease this apart and evaluate the contribution of potential mechanisms in addition to constructing ‘virtual populations’.”

Dr. Smith, who is also a core faculty member of the Institute for the Study of Host-Pathogen Systems, has been using mathematical models to study influenza infection for over 15 years. She is a member of the international Board of Directors for the Society for Mathematical Biology.