Avian Flu Research has Swine Flu Outbreak Applications

A new study by University of Maryland researchers suggests that the potential for an avian influenza virus to cause a human flu pandemic is greater than previously thought. Results also illustrate how the current swine flu outbreak likely came about.

As of now, avian flu viruses can infect humans who have contact with birds, but these viruses tend not to transmit easily between humans. However, in research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Associate Professor Daniel Perez from the University of Maryland showed that after re-assortment with a human influenza virus, a process that usually takes place in intermediary species like pigs, an avian flu virus requires relatively few mutations to spread rapidly between mammals by respiratory droplets.

"This is similar to the method by which the current swine influenza strain likely formed," said Perez, program director of the University of Maryland-based Prevention and Control of Avian Influenza Coordinated Agricultural Project, AICAP. "The virus formed when avian, swine, and human-like viruses combined in a pig to make a new virus. After mutating to be able to spread by respiratory droplets and infect humans, it is now spreading between humans by sneezing and coughing."

In his study, Perez used the avian H9N2 influenza virus, one that is on the list of candidates for human pandemic potential. Using reverse genetics, a technique whereby individual genes from viruses are separated, selected, and put back together, Perez and his team created a hybrid human-avian virus. Their research hybrid has internal human flu genes and surface avian flu genes from the H9N2 virus. Though it comes from a different strain of avian flu than the one that contributed to the hybrid virus now causing the swine flu outbreak, Perez's research virus is similar in origin to the swine flu virus, in that both involved a combination of avian and human influenza viruses.

Perez infected ferrets (considered a good model for human influenza transmission) with the virus he created, and allowed the virus to mutate in the species. Before long, healthy ferrets that shared air space but not physical space with the infected ferret had the virus, showing that the virus had mutated to spread by respiratory droplets.

"Because the binding site of the mutant virus is different from the virus upon which the vaccine is modeled, it may mean that current vaccine stocks would not be as effective against the H9N2 mutant strain as previously anticipated," Perez said. "We should keep this in mind when designing vaccines for an avian flu pandemic in humans."

However, scientists cannot predict what the actual mutations will look like if and when they occur in nature, or even which strain of avian influenza will mutate to infect mammals.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Perez said. "Many more studies have to be done to see which combinations of mutations cause this type of transmission before we can design the appropriate vaccines."

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