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Watching viruses 'friend' a network
Date:8/29/2011

From SARS to swine flu, virus outbreaks can be unpredictable and devastating. But now a new application through the ubiquitous social networking site Facebook, developed in a Tel Aviv University lab, is poised to serve as a better indicator of how infections spread among populations.

Dr. Gal Almogy and Prof. Nir Ben-Tal of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at TAU's George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences have developed a Facebook application called PiggyDemic, which allows users to "infect" their friends with a simulated virus or become infected themselves. The resulting patterns will allow researchers to gather information on how a virus mutates, spreads through human interaction, and the number of people it infects. Their research was recently presented at the annual retreat of the Safra Bioinformatics Program.

Programming a social disease

Currently, scientists use mathematical algorithms to determine which virus will spread and how, but this method has some flaws. It assumes that a virus has equal distribution across populations, but that is simply not the case, the researchers say. Patterns of social interaction must also be taken into account. "HIV is concentrated in Africa; certain types of flu are widespread in North America and Asia," explains Dr. Almogy. "Adding the element of human interaction, and looking at the social networks we belong to, is critical for investigating viral interaction."

Facebook, notes Dr. Almogy, is an ideal tool for such an undertaking. The social networking site's digital interactions simulate in-person interactions. Viral infections like the flu are a social phenomena, he explains.

Once added to a user's Facebook account, PiggyDemic follows the user's newsfeed to determine the people they interact with. Users are deemed "susceptible," "immune" or "infected" with various simulated viruses, and can pass them on to their online contacts. Researchers then f
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Contact: George Hunka
ghunka@aftau.org
212-742-9070
American Friends of Tel Aviv University
Source:Eurekalert  

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