Faculty & Staff Honors

Faculty & Staff Honors

UTHealth Faculty Member Receives CDC’s Charles C. Shepard Award

Dr. Justin Bahl, associate professor of epidemiology, human genetics, and environmental sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health, has been awarded the 2017 Charles C. Shepard Science Award for a paper he coauthored, titled “Viral deep sequencing needs an adaptive approach: IRMA, the iterative refinement meta-assembler.” The paper was published in the September 5, 2016 issue of BMC Genomics.

[Photo: Dr. Justin Bahl]

The award, given through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is presented annually to the best manuscript on original research published by a CDC or Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) scientist in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. Dr. Bahl and his colleagues won in the category of data methods and study design. This award recognizes the development and demonstration of an outstanding or exceptional approach to solving a public health problem, according to the CDC’s award criteria.

The award-winning paper describes iterative refinement meta-assembler (IRMA), a method used to analyze viral populations and their evolution. Current next-generation genome sequencing approaches have been developed to analyze data from mammals, such as humans. But IRMA is better suited to track viruses, Dr. Bahl explains.

“The genomes of virus populations are small and highly variable, evolving a million times faster than mammalian populations,” he says. “Our method allows for us to efficiently and accurately assemble viral genomes. This is critical for the next generation of viral surveillance.”

Dr. Bahl led a team of researchers at UTHealth School of Public Health to develop influenza profiles and training datasets used to validate IRMA, analyzing more than 50,000 genes.

In Houston, Dr. Bahl’s team has extended the method to better analyze avian influenza A virus from wild birds in North America; Respiratory Syncytial Virus from hospitalized pediatric cases; MERS-CoV isolated from domestic camels; and Avian paramyxovirus from poultry.

“Importantly, we have since demonstrated that our computational method can be used to identify and analyze sequence data generated from individuals or animals infected with more than one virus,” Dr. Bahl says.

Established in 1986, the CDC/ATSDR Charles C. Shepard Science Award was named in honor of Dr. Charles C. Shepard, the internationally recognized microbiologist who was chief of the Leprosy and Rickettsia Branch at the CDC for more than 30 years, until his death on February 18, 1985.

Read more about Dr. Bahl’s work here. Read the original story here.