When a person contracts a respiratory viral infection like COVID-19 or influenza, the immune system responds in a myriad of ways to eliminate the virus. Respiratory viral infections are so dangerous, however, because excessive immune responses may cause extreme lung inflammation. However, new modeling research may help doctors better predict and treat patients who are most at risk to that extreme response.
McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Jason Shoemaker, PhD, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, believes engineering-based mathematical modeling can help clinicians understand why some people’s immune systems react so severely, predicting the risk factors and pinpointing the most effective treatments to reduce inflammation.
The National Science Foundation granted Dr. Shoemaker a CAREER Award for $547,494 over five years to create computational models of the immune response to seasonal, deadly (avian) influenza viruses, which can help identify the best way to suppress immune activity and reduce tissue inflammation. Since this work targets the immune system and not the specific virus, the models are expected to impact many respiratory infections, including COVID-19
“The immune system is a complex, interactive, dynamic system. Its goal is to clear the infection while minimizing collateral damage to the lungs and other organs in the process. But when it comes to respiratory infections, it’s been known that your immune response can do more damage than it should,” says Dr. Shoemaker. “Engineering-based mathematical modeling approaches are ideal for simulating such a complex system and predicting the system’s response to viral infections and treatment.”
Even outside of the current pandemic, respiratory virus infections are a constant threat to public health. Seasonal influenza can result in up to 700,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths in the United States. Dr. Shoemaker’s models will enable researchers to uncover the biochemical markers that lead to excessive immune responses in respiratory infections and will help identify the best method for suppressing immune activity in those cases.
In addition to this research, Dr. Shoemaker and his team will develop virtual reality (VR) games to teach the public about the immune system.
“Our computational work is not tangible, and it’s hard to engage our community with something they can’t see or touch,” says Dr. Shoemaker. “The idea behind our VR games is to create a virtual environment to allow someone to dive in and observe the chemical behaviors of the immune system, seeing up close how they can lead to a dysregulation of the immune system and severe disease.”
The award, titled “CAREER: Enabling Immunomodulatory Treatment of Influenza Infection using Multiscale Modeling,” began on May 1, 2020. The NSF CAREER award program honors “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.”