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Potential flu pandemic lurks
Date:5/10/2013

emerged that was very similar to the virus that caused a 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million to 100 million people.

"We asked if that could happen with H3," Sasisekharan says. "You would think it's more readily possible with H3 because we observe that there seems to be a lot more mixing of H3 between humans and swine."

Genetic similarities

In the new study, the researchers compared the 1968 H3N2 strain and about 1,100 H3 strains now circulating in pigs and birds, focusing on the gene that codes for the viral hemagglutinin (HA) protein.

After comparing HA genetic sequences in five key locations that control the viruses' interactions with infected hosts, the researchers calculated an "antigenic index" for each strain. This value indicates the percentage of these genetic regions identical to those of the 1968 pandemic strain and helps determine how well an influenza virus can evade a host's immune response.

The researchers also took into account the patterns of attachment of the HA protein to sugar molecules called glycans. The virus' ability to attach to glycan receptors found on human respiratory-tract cells is key to infecting humans.

Seeking viruses with an antigenic index of at least 49 percent and glycan-attachment patterns identical to those of the 1968 virus, the research team identified 581 H3 viruses isolated since 2000 that could potentially cause a pandemic. Of these, 549 came from birds and 32 from pigs.

The researchers then exposed some of these strains to antibodies provoked by the current H3 seasonal-flu vaccines. As they predicted, these antibodies were unable to recognize or attack these H3 strains. Of the 581 HA sequences, six swine strains already contain the standard HA mutations necessary for human adaptation, and are thus capable of entering the human population either directly or via genetic reassortment, Sasisekharan says.

"One of the amazing things about the influ
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Contact: Sarah McDonnell
s_mcd@mit.edu
617-253-8923
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert

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