“The threat of an influenza pandemic is a major source of concern for the public health community,?says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “The new NIAID Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance will help expand the federal government’s existing international and domestic influenza surveillance efforts, further our understanding of influenza viruses, and generate the information and tools necessary to better prepare and respond to a pandemic situation.?
The new awards build upon an ongoing program led by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, initiated by NIAID after the 1997 Hong Kong outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in humans. Under this program, researchers conducted surveillance of influenza viruses in aquatic birds and live bird markets in Hong Kong, which helped shed light on the natural history of flu viruses. Further, scientists conducted training courses in animal influenza surveillance, developed diagnostic tools to detect animal flu viruses, and generated viruses suitable for use in developing human influenza vaccines.
NIAID is expanding the surveillance and research program to now include six Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. Their work will include determining the prevalence of avian influenza in animals that routinely come into close contact with people; understanding how flu viruses evolve, adapt and transmit infection; and identifying immunological factors that can determine whether a flu virus causes only mild illness or death. Additionally, some centers will monitor for international and domestic cases of animal and human influenza to rapidly detect and characterize viruses that may have pandemic potential and to create vaccine candidates targeted to those viruses. Ultimately, these studies will lay the groundwork for developing new and improved control measures for emerging and reemerging flu viruses.
Summaries of the six NIAID Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance awards are provided below.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis (principal investigator—Dr. Robert Webster) Research activities will involve evaluating antiviral drug regimens and factors that drive drug resistance; identifying viral markers that may indicate how a virus becomes deadly, adapts and transmits infection; uncovering immune system mechanisms that protect against the H5N1 avian flu virus; and identifying the factors that make animals and people susceptible to flu virus infection. In addition, St. Jude will expand its animal surveillance to more than a dozen countries and multiple U.S. states. St. Jude also will monitor pediatric populations for flu activity and maintain a surveillance component to monitor for evidence of the reemergence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Additionally, the researchers will explore strategies for controlling influenza outbreaks in agricultural settings.
University of California at Los Angeles (principal investigator—Dr. Scott Layne) UCLA investigators will monitor animal influenza internationally and in the states of Alaska, Washington and Califor nia. They also will maintain a high-throughput laboratory network capable of providing real-time information about circulating influenza virus strains and antiviral drug resistance—information that will be most critical during the early stages of an influenza pandemic.
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (principal investigator—Dr. Marguerite Pappaiaonou) These researchers will conduct international and domestic animal flu surveillance covering all major domestic flight paths of migratory birds. This center also will carry out a human influenza surveillance study in Thailand and will monitor U.S. agricultural workers who work with swine.
Emory University, Atlanta (principal investigator—Dr. Richard Compans) This center will conduct studies to determine how influenza viruses adapt to new hosts and are transmitted between different hosts, and analyze human immune responses to influenza vaccination and infection. The researchers will examine how human genes might be silenced to decrease or eliminate flu infections; identify new targets for antiviral medicines; and evaluate flu transmission between patients and physicians in the hospital emergency room setting. Emory will also offer a training program for postdoctoral fellows and veterinarians interested in influenza and other research performed in a biosafety level 3 laboratory.
Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City (principal investigator—Dr. Adolfo Garcia-Sastre) These researchers will conduct molecular studies to identify influenza virus genes associated with the development of disease, the adaptability of flu viruses in birds and mammals, and the transmission of flu viruses between different hosts.
University of Rochester, Rochester, NY (principal investigator—Dr. John Treanor) Dr. Treanor and his colleagues will establish a human surveillance system that will monitor selected communities in New York for seasonal flu virus infections, and will study the effecti veness of annual immunization programs using inactivated or weakened (live, attenuated) flu virus vaccines. The Rochester center also will perform clinical immunological studies to better define human immune responses to influenza vaccination and infection. Additionally, the center will study how flu viruses adapt to new species of animals.