In the fight against infectious diseases, researchers often look for new methods to improve treatments and find cures. Computational biology is one field that is playing an increasingly significant role in that fight.
“There is a constant quest to find new therapeutics or improve on existing ones and computational analysis is becoming more important to achieve that,” says Desmond Lun, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at Rutgers University–Camden.
Lun is an active participant in Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, which combines traditional biomedical research with analytic methods employed by mathematicians and computer scientists to understand how biological systems work.
There are a number of different approaches computational biologists take when studying infectious diseases, Lun says, and a primary approach is studying genome sequences of organisms and using them to understand the evolution of a disease and what makes different people more or less susceptible to a disease.
“Viruses have a pathway by which they enter the host and that pathway begins with them somehow attaching to a cell. There are genetic variations in the initial contact mechanism,” Lun explains. “Computational biologists use computers to develop models of an organism in order to understand what interventions can be used to disrupt that contact.”
The recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa — which has claimed more than 1,200 lives, according to the World Health Organization — and the treatment of some patients with an experimental drug, is raising questions about potential vaccinations. It’s possible that computational science could play a role in the evolution of those treatments.
“What makes Ebola unique among the things that computational biologists tend to study is that it is a virus, and as such has a very small number of proteins. Therefore, a large part of understanding viral diseases involves understanding how they interact with human hosts,” Lun says.
One of Lun’s own research projects has focused on the development of new methods to fight the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, which usually attack the lungs, but also can attack other parts of the body such as the kidneys, spine, and brain. The Rutgers–Camden professor uses computational analysis to try to find how to disrupt the organism’s metabolism, therefore slowing its growth.
“We still use many of the same drugs that we were using decades ago to fight tuberculosis,” Lun says. “We know that there is a steady increase in antibiotic resistance, so we are constantly trying to develop new ones. It gets harder and harder to do so and we have to continue to develop new methods to interrupt the way the bacterium survives and replicates in its host.”
Lun, a Philadelphia resident, earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and computer engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He received his master’s in electrical engineering and doctorate in computer science from MIT.