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Nextstrain.org Wins Open Science Prize

March 1, 2017
by David Raths
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Online platform uses real-time visualization, viral genome data to track the spread of global pathogens

A prototype online platform that uses real-time visualization and viral genome data to track the spread of global pathogens such as Zika and Ebola is the grand prize winner of the Open Science Prize.

The winning team, Real-time Evolutionary Tracking for Pathogen Surveillance and Epidemiological Investigation, created its nextstrain.org prototype to pool data from researchers across the globe, perform rapid phylogenetic analysis, and post the results on the platform’s website.

The Open Science Prize is a global competition designed to foster innovative solutions in public health and biomedicine using open digital content. The prize, which was launched in October 2015, aims to forge new international collaborations that bring together open science innovators to develop services and tools of benefit to the global research community.

The international team competition is an initiative by the National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The winning team will receive $230,000 to fully develop their prototype with NIH awarding $115,000 to the U.S. members of the winning team, and the Wellcome Trust and HHMI also contributing $115,000 to the winning team.

Nextstrain.org placed first out of three top finalists, selected from a pool of 96 multinational, interdisciplinary teams including 450 innovators from 45 countries. This award is the culmination of a year-long process which included development and demonstration of working prototypes and multiple stages of rigorous review by panels of expert Open Science advisors and judges from the Wellcome Trust and NIH.

Genome sequences of viral pathogens provide a hugely valuable insight into the spread of an epidemic, but to be useful, samples have to be collected, analyzed and the results disseminated in near real-time. The statistical analyses behind nextstrain.org can be conducted in minutes, and can reveal patterns of geographic spread, timings of introduction events, and can connect cases to aid contact tracing efforts.

The phylogenetic analyses are posted on the website as interactive and easy to understand visualizations. The team behind nextstrain.org is led by Trevor Bedford, Ph.D., of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and Richard Neher, Ph.D., of Biozentrum at the University of Basel, Switzerland. They hope that the platform will be of great use to researchers, public health officials and the public who want a snapshot of an epidemic.

"Nextstrain.org aims to synthesize publicly available pathogen genomic data to arrive at an understanding of epidemic spread not available through traditional surveillance systems," Bedford said in a prepared statement.

All stages of the competition emphasized open science in both form and process, including public input for the award gathered via a global public voting portal. During the public voting phase, which narrowed the six finalists to three top contenders, nearly 4,000 online votes were cast by members of the public from a total of 76 countries on all six inhabited continents.

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