Associate professor impacts worldwide health through discovery
Dr. Xiu-Feng (Henry) Wan could be on the faculty of many other major research institutions. He remains at Mississippi State University, however, because of the freedom the institution gives him to research in a manner he finds both personally satisfying and beneficial to animals and humans.
Wan is a leading influenza viral scientist and chooses the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine as his professional base. He is an associate professor in systems biology in the Department of Basic Sciences, a role he has held well over a decade.
A goal for Wan is to take MSU to the pinnacle of research by one day developing a universal vaccine for influenza viruses in humans and animals that is both efficient and economical. Wan became the first scientist to isolate the highly pathogenic H5NI avian influenza virus while doing graduate work in China, and today he continues his life’s research on that particular virus and other viruses.
Wan’s work translates on a global scale. His research with influenza vaccines is part of MSU-CVM’s leading contributions to the effort known as One Health. The One Health movement is a worldwide strategy for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of healthcare for humans, animals and the environment. The initiative promotes three key components – connect, share and thrive -- and these components are ever-present in Wan’s teaching and research.
Wan was born and grew up in a small town on the Yangtze River in central China and understands firsthand the need for One Health. He earned a veterinary degree from Jiangxi Agricultural University and a master’s degree in Avian Medicine from South China Agricultural University before earning a master’s degree in computer science and a Ph.D. degree in veterinary medicine, both from MSU.
As an MSU researcher, Wan has found that biology and computer science make the perfect combination for tracking animal flu viruses. He developed a computer program that provides a better understanding of why flu viruses mutate and how they spread.
“I became very interested in influenza viruses during my education,” Wan said. “My research centers around influenza A viruses – where they come from, where they change, and how they spread.”
Wan’s program tracks antigens, the substances that cause antibody production in response to different viruses. His system, called AntigenMap, sounds complicated, but it offers a clear visual of flu viruses over time and populations. Antigen allows users to “see” viruses on two- or three-dimensional maps.
The program also provides information on each of the more than 30,000 viruses’ gene segments. It displays each gene segment and provides maps showing the distances between the segments. The information is used to determine how the segments relate to each other and group together to form different influenza viruses.
“Influenza viruses are always changing. They reproduce to become more fit, or virulent, to continue to spread,” Wan said. “The program aims to seek a better understanding of why they mutate and how they spread. Knowing this helps us more accurately predict when new viruses will arise.”
Researchers begin the mapping process by ranking each virus. Wan likens this process to the way users rank movies on Netflix.
“When you rank movies on Netflix, the program is able to build recommendations that suit your tastes,” Wan said. “We build the same sort of table for flu viruses, and what results is the viruses’ activity and behavior. Using a computer program, that table gets turned into a map, and we can actually see the different viruses and how they are related to each other.”
In addition to knowing where viruses are and how they may change, the system shows researchers what populations the viruses are close to, which gives insight into how they may mutate throughout a flu season.
“Virus transmission could be affected by a number of factors, such as climate, population density of a certain bird species, and bird migration patterns,” Wan said. “I am collaborating with researchers in the United States and other parts of the world to better understand what environmental factors contribute to virus spread and mutation.”
Wan seeks to use the research on influenza viruses to aid in the development and production of vaccines. Knowing the genetic code of viruses and predicting their mutation and movement can help scientists stop them before they become widespread, preventing deaths in the process. In addition to understanding the relationship between influenza virus gene segments, Wan and his research colleagues seek to determine what environmental factors affect the spread of viruses.
“Our research on virus mutation and spread can help predict new strains of the virus and eventually aid us in foreseeing epidemics and pandemics,” Wan said. “That information could be used to develop vaccines before the epidemic or pandemic were to hit.”
With regard to the One Health initiative, Wan said, “Vaccine is expensive, and we must work together to develop it to help everyone across the world.”
Through extensive pandemic influenza research, MSU scientists are pioneering medical solutions that ultimately will protect human populations around the world. With additional funds, the university will lead research that can significantly impact all humans, especially pregnant women and children in third world countries.
“Vaccine development is expensive and depends on many laboratories around the world. It also involves the use of live viruses,” Wan said. “Antigen involves looking at the changes of viruses through history and over geographic regions. It is basically mapping out viruses and showing their actual antigenic distance from each other.”
Before joining MSU, Wan was a senior scientist in the Influenza Division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to that, he spent several years as an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology at Miami University in Ohio.
Wan’s future plans include continued association with CVM because he believes he is a great fit with the college’s long-range goals and those that revolve around One Health.
“Dr. Wan has an in-depth understanding of influenza biology and also of the computational problem that needs to be solved, making him an ideal collaborator, and we are fortunate to have him make an impact as part of our faculty,” said Kent Hoblet, CVM dean.
Although the research endeavors of Wan and the students who assist him are partially supported by the USDA and the National Institutes of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Sciences, private gifts can create a margin of excellence and elevate the stature and progress of his efforts.
With Infinite Impact gifts, alumni, friends and corporations will allow CVM to further opportunities for scientists like Wan by creating additional state-of-the art-laboratories and purchasing the latest equipment to grant them access to superior tools used by colleagues in universities and private firms across the nation. Other gifts can create assistantships for students who will research alongside some of CVM’s best faculty. All these efforts can further One Health for people and animals worldwide, creating an infinite impact through discovery.