Ordinarily, the words “virus” and “computer” elicit a chill. For Dr. Catherine Beauchemin, a professor in the Department of Physics at Ryerson University, computer modelling holds a key to understanding the spread of viral infections.
A model can yield results many times faster than a lab experiment. “Using these models,” Dr. Beauchemin explains, “we can simulate an extremely large number of experiments, more so than could ever be tested in a lab.”
The goal of her research is to understand the value of parameters that affect virus behaviour. Dr. Beauchemin’s team has been able to pair in vitro experiments and math/computer models to accurately extract most of the parameters that affect virus replication in vitro.
This is a major breakthrough. Knowledge of multiple parameters will improve predictions in areas such as drug resistance or the efficacy of newly developed drugs in stopping virus replication. Recently, her team used their models to find out if the mutation that makes the flu virus resistant to the drug Tamiflu could develop in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu strain. They concluded that the mutation could in fact be viable in that strain.
Dr. Beauchemin hopes to go further: to find a set of experiments that will identify even more aspects of an infection. She acknowledges that, in some areas, she and other researchers still have to over-simplify the models they build. This is because there is not enough experimental data to allow them to build more accurate but also more complicated, models. Not all data can be collected—for reasons of funding or ethics—so some details are left unknown. “We have to be extremely creative,” she says, “and think outside the box.”
At Ryerson, Dr. Beauchemin works through the “phymbie” group, where computational and mathematical modelling—typically used in physics—is applied to problems in biology, immunology, and ecology. The experimental data she requires in her research are gathered by her collaborators in virology, immunology, or microbiology, or are found in literature.
Her work is getting acclaim. In March, 2012, Dr. Beauchemin won the Macrae Group LLC’s Young Investigator Award. She presented her research in Turkey, at the the XIVth International Symposium on Respiratory Viral Infections.