HHS Ventures Team Helps Detect Disease Outbreaks


The figure above is not an exotic, tropical flower in bloom, but a transmission cluster of Hepatitis C patients sampled during a single outbreak using GHOST – Global Hepatitis Outbreak Surveillance Tool

Using tech to fight disease is a no brainer

It was a no brainer for the HHS Ventures Fund to include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) GHOST project in its latest round of funding.

There are about 3.5 million Americans infected with Hepatitis C (HCV), which attacks the liver and can lead to cirrhosis and other serious health problems, according to the latest data collected by the CDC. This CDC Ventures team is developing a cloud-based, public health research tool to help state and local health departments more quickly detect and fight the spread of disease. The team calls their system GHOST – Global Hepatitis Outbreak Surveillance Technology. Sumathi Ramachandran Ph.D., a CDC scientist who had used an earlier version of the GHOST tool, presented research last year about the CDC’s response to a large, 2015 HCV outbreak among injection drug users, explaining that it contained nearly 400 HCV specimens, of which about 25% were co-infected with HIV. Ramachandran praised the system for its ability to aggregate and present genomic sequencing data and quickly allow interventions.

“GHOST is a game changer,” said Ramachandran, “It integrates new laboratory methods and analytical web-based tools and offers a report which is very end-user friendly.” She explained that GHOST helps scientists visualize the spread of Hepatitis C and begin to identify “super spreaders.”

The CDC’s team pointed to a  “super spreader” they helped to track down. Many in New Hampshire, and around the country, remember the story of a hospital worker who infected dozens with HCV. By reusing a syringe when he stole Fentanyl and replaced it with saline tainted with his blood, a former contract hospital worker who worked all over the United States, infected more than 30 patients with HCV. The culprit’s own genetic biomarker eventually became his downfall. GHOST will help to quickly identify HCV infection as more state and local health departments begin to use the tool.

“It’s an automated, big data, anomaly detector,” said Yuri Khudyakov, Ph.D. Khudyakov;  the project lead, Gilberto Vaughan, Ph.D.; David Campos, Ph.D.; developer Seth Sims; and others at CDC, created the system with the end user in mind, the researchers said.

The GHOST platform identifies transmission clusters of HCV patients and allows states and local labs to access the web-based portal and immediately start to investigate a cluster or outbreak. “State and local labs do not have the resources to do these types of genetic analyses or extract the data in such an easy to understand way” Khudyakov said.

The team from the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention designed and developed GHOST and is now piloting it in five states (Alaska, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and Tennessee) and has heard from public health officials in Latvia and Georgia interested in the system. The GHOST team will use their Ventures funding to continue to iterate and improve the tool based on the pilot results.

Vaughan said their team is holding training in August for state and local health departments to “show them our protocols” and explain GHOST’s capabilities. Vaughan said they are excited to share the tool with public health officials across the country so they can use its analytic capabilities to identify outbreaks sooner and respond faster.

Ventures History: The HHS Ventures Fund was created in 2013 to stimulate innovative solutions across the Department. The initiative focuses on new ideas and actions that alter and improve the way the Department does business. HHS employees with proven ideas for how to dramatically improve their office, agency, or the Department’s ability to carry out its mission are encouraged to apply. Every year since 2013, after a competitive vetting process, teams are selected to receive growth-stage funding and support to develop and implement their efforts.

HHS Ventures is now in its fourth round. In earlier rounds, HHS Ventures has supported efforts, such as operationalizing an online portal for sharing 3D-printable models related to biomedical science, leveraging algorithms to review medical records and reduce labor of estimating the prevalence of autism in the U.S., and piloting a single sign-on Health Information Exchange system in California for providers.

Editor’s Note: Interested in learning more about GHOST? Contact Vaughan and his team here and read more about the technology in the March 15 edition of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, which put GHOST on its cover.