NIAID unveils multicenter flu research initiative

Apr 4, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – In a major effort to track influenza viruses in nature and learn more about how they interact with the human body, the federal government this week announced a $23-million-a-year program to fund research centers at six institutions around the country.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) unveiled the 7-year plan to fund six "Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance" at universities and other institutions from New York City to Los Angeles.

"The goal of the newly created centers is to provide the federal government with important information to inform public health strategies for controlling and lessening the impact of seasonal influenza as well as an influenza pandemic," the NIAID said in an Apr 2 news release.

Research under the NIAID contracts will range from monitoring of Americans' responses to flu vaccination to identification of possible targets for new antiviral drugs and testing of pigs and wild birds. Each center will collaborate with a number of other agencies and institutions.

The new initiative builds on a program launched by the NIAID after the original human outbreak of H5N1 avian flu in Hong Kong in 1997, the agency said. In that program, led by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, researchers studied flu viruses in waterfowl and live bird markets in Hong Kong, shedding light on the natural history of the viruses. St. Jude is one of the six centers named this week.

The six centers, with their principal investigators and main areas of research as described by the NIAID, are as follows:

  • St. Jude, Dr. Robert Webster. Research areas include antiviral drug regimens, factors in flu virus resistance to antivirals, virus transmissibility, and human defenses against the H5N1 virus. The center will also maintain surveillance for SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in Southeast Asia.
  • University of California, Los Angeles; Dr. Scott Layne. Researchers will monitor animal influenza internationally and in the Pacific Northwest and will maintain a high-throughput laboratory network for studying circulating flu viruses and antiviral resistance.
  • University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou. Scientists will monitor flu viruses in migratory birds, conduct human flu surveillance in Thailand, and monitor US farm workers who work with swine. (See further information below.)
  • Emory University, Atlanta; Dr. Richard Compans. Researchers will study how flu viruses adapt to new hosts and are transmitted between different hosts and will examine human immune responses to flu vaccination and infection.
  • Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; Dr. Adolfo Garcia-Sastre. Researchers will conduct molecular studies to identify viral genes associated with pathogenicity and the adaptability of flu viruses in birds and mammals.
  • University of Rochester, New York; Dr. John Treanor. Investigators will monitor communities in New York for seasonal flu infections and study the effectiveness of annual immunization programs, among other efforts. (See further information below.)

At the University of Minnesota, Pappaioanou said the center will collaborate with a number of other groups to test wild birds for flu viruses throughout the Central Flyway, with studies weighted toward the Upper Midwest. Partners in the effort include the University of Georgia in Athens, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the US National Wildlife Health Center in Madison (Wis.), the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and Cargill Corp., she said.

Depending on results, the bird surveillance may lead to testing of pigs and possibly testing of people who work with pigs, Pappaioanou, an epidemiologist and veterinarian in the School of Public Health, told CIDRAP News. "If we find birds that are positive, we'll look at swine that are nearby. We'll be interviewing people who own those operations and their employees. If there are reports of human illness that could be flu, we'll be testing specimens from [the patients]."

In addition, the center will team up with Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, which has battled H5N1 outbreaks in recent years, for a human flu surveillance project in rural Thailand, Pappaioanou said. Researchers will be looking at risk factors for H5N1 exposure and also test people for antibodies indicating past exposure to the virus.

Pappaioanou said the center will receive NIAID funding of about $3 million a year under a contract that requires various "deliverables" along the way. The latter include things like detailed information on the viruses collected plus laboratory reagents and protocols developed. The data generated will be deposited in GenBank and other public databases.

"My role is largely going to be coordinating this, making sure things happen, providing scientific oversight, and making sure we deliver our deliverables to the NIH [National Institutes of Health]," she said.

At the University of Rochester, scientists are planning research to help in the development of a single vaccine that can work against many different flu strains, Treanor commented in a news release.

The Rochester center will study five topics in particular: (1) how white blood cells recognize qualities shared by many different flu strains, (2) the identity of viral proteins that turn on "helper" T cells, causing them to attack infected cells, (3) communication between immune cells, (4) the nature of changes in the viral protein hemagglutinin when flu viruses jump from birds to mammals, and (5) the qualities of viral polymerase, the enzyme the virus uses to copy its genetic material.

As part of the effort, "Researchers will follow college students, healthy adults, and 150 families with young children in the Rochester area for seven years, monitoring them for exposure to flu and responses to vaccination," the release states.

The Rochester contract is worth a total of $26 million, officials said. The university will collaborate with Cornell University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and community partners.

See also:

Apr 2 NIAID news release

University of Rochester news release

St Jude Children's Research Hospital news release

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