Melanie Moses, a professor of computer science and biology at The University of New Mexico, has been awarded National Science Foundation funding to understand how human lungs respond to viral pathogens like COVID-19.

With the help of research assistant Vanessa Surjadidjaja, Moses hopes to answer how within-host infection dynamics affect between-host transmission. More specifically, how the spatial interactions of virus and immune response within hosts affects transmission between hosts, Moses said.

To do this, they are developing a Spatial Immunological Model of Coronavirus (SIM-Cov) that uses computer simulations and laboratory data to visualize interactions between immune cells and the virus within the lungs. The goal is to also examine variability in viral load, a correlate of how infectious the patient is, across infected individuals and through time, Moses said.

“An important goal for disease modeling within hosts and between hosts is to account for how different kinds of cells, or people with different jobs or risk factors, interact in space to facilitate or impede disease spread,” Moses said.

SIM-Cov uses the movement patterns of T cells, a type of white blood cell that dictates the body’s immune response to pathogens, and CT scans to show the distribution of infected cells in the lungs of COVID-19 patients. SIM-Cov then produces as output a predicted time course of infection, including the number of infected and dead cells in the lung, and an estimate of viral load over time.

“These variables are correlated with disease severity and the probability of transmission to other people,” Moses said.

While the research will not officially begin until June 1, 2020, when NSF funding will be in place, Moses has been building models of influenza spread in the lungs for six years and has learned that the spatial distribution of virus and immune cells is very important.

“Most models of disease spread make the simplifying assumption that any cell has an equal chance of infecting any other cell. But in reality, cells are far more likely to infect nearby cells. Accounting for this reality changes our understanding of the disease dynamics,” Moses said.

Moses says the Women In STEM Award that funded preliminary research to herself, associate professor of Pathology Judy Cannon, and Surjadidjaja has been crucial in moving forward with this project.

 “Without it we would not have been able to successfully submit for NSF funding,” Moses said.