Research program coming to UNC Charlotte could help prevent world’s next pandemic

CIPHER is a new high-tech program that goes beyond work in a traditional lab.
CIPHER is a new high-tech program that goes beyond work in a traditional lab.
Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 7:48 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A new high-tech research program is coming to the campus of UNC Charlotte.

Three years ago, the topic of health and medicinal research probably wouldn’t have drawn your attention. But now, after COVID, we’re all interested because no one wants to be surprised by an outbreak again.

Dr. Dan Janies is a distinguished professor of bioinformatics and genomics and he’s giving us a first look at the Center for Computational Intelligence to Predict Environmental and Health Risks, better known as ‘CIPHER.’

“We’re getting together to work on basically trying to have an ‘all hazards’ approach to potential pandemic agents, that could come from any sources, bats, ticks, environmental sources,” Janies said. “And so we’ve hired experts in a lot of areas.”

Tracking the source of the next virus, and then it’s next variants is obviously complicated.

Those working in the program are doing tasks beyond what you would typically think of in a research lab.

“There’s the empirical side where we’re, you know, collecting the specimens,” Janies said. “And, more importantly, nowadays, getting their RNA and proteins, or DNA and proteins. And then...we have to use computers to compare it to known entities to figure out what the mutations are, what the genes of interest are, and what functions they convert and how, how dangerous or benign they might be.”

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CIPHER is about computing power and analyzing data as much as anything else.

“So when people are thinking about COVID, for example, right, and we knew Omicron was coming. You were looking for it. This is the place you can find it,” the professor said.

Those researching at CIPHER have the ability to sequence specimen samples collected around the school’s campus, which is critical in terms of being able to come to an early diagnosis.

Dr. Adam Reitzel, a professor of biological sciences, also gave his input.

“I think the general public has seen the importance of having really sort of fast science that’s able to identify problems quickly and then come up with solutions to them,” Reitzel said. “The ability to share data, whether it’s between colleagues or agencies, and with the public, has also sort of gotten much, much faster.”

Reitzel said the program should hopefully put society in a much better position the next time a health crisis comes around, and allow for a quicker, more effective response as well.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Janies said similar outbreaks were treated as emergencies to respond to, but hopes to see CIPHER change that.

“What I’d like to see is us moving towards a more ongoing constitutive kind of response, and I think that’s what the center is going to, you know, be part of is that ongoing, early warning system,” he said.

Janies also mentioned the number of partners and drug screenings that CIPHER is working through to identify which drugs could be the best candidates for certain illnesses.

CIPHER also plays into another major goal for UNC Charlotte. Chancellor Sharon Gaber told us when she first took the job, one of her major goals was to make the school a top-tier research university.

Gabler said that once that is accomplished, it will provide economic benefits to the region.

The emergence of CIPHER is one of the first steps to achieving that goal.

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