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Vol. LXI, No. 13
June 26, 2009

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NIAID Labs Meet the H1N1 Challenge

On the front page...

Researchers around the country, including those supported by NIH, have mobilized to work on the emergent strain of H1N1 influenza A that has infected thousands of people around the world. Some of this groundbreaking research is taking place right here on campus.

The 2009 outbreak of a new strain of H1N1 influenza A demonstrates that continuing vigilance, planning and strong public health research capability are essential defenses against emerging health threats. Research on H5N1 (bird flu) and other influenza viruses with pandemic potential has prepared NIAID scientists in Bethesda and Hamilton, Mont., to respond to this newest influenza threat. They have expanded and refocused projects to include studies of the course the virus takes in the human immune system, the origin of the virus, H1N1-infected patients and a preventive vaccine. Many of these studies involve collaborations with researchers in other federal agencies, academia and the private sector.


  A transmission electron micrograph of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus  
  A transmission electron micrograph of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus  

“The outbreak of 2009 H1N1 influenza serves as a clear reminder that microbes in the environment are constantly evolving and emerging with new capabilities,” says NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci. “Our labs and others in the scientific community have quickly come together to improve our understanding of this new virus and to bring us closer to a safe and effective vaccine.”

Characterizing the 2009 H1N1 Virus

To better understand how potential pandemic influenza viruses such as the avian H5N1 virus cause severe disease in humans, scientists in NIAID labs had previously developed several animal models to study the course of the disease. CDC recently shared samples of the new H1N1 strain with NIAID scientists, who are now using these animal models to study H1N1.

Studies being conducted in mice, ferrets and nonhuman primates allow NIAID labs to compare the new 2009 H1N1, classical swine H1N1 and European swine H1N1 viruses with other influenza strains such as avian viruses and seasonal influenza strains. Scientists are studying how the 2009 H1N1 virus replicates, what kind of pathologic changes the infection produces and how easily the virus is transmitted. For example, in the Laboratory of Virology in Hamilton, researchers led by Dr. Heinz Feldmann will use a recently established X-ray imaging system to determine whether the new H1N1 virus affects the lower respiratory tract; influenza infections that do are typically more severe than those in the upper respiratory system.

Determining Where the Virus Came From

Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger leads a team in the NIAID Laboratory of Infectious Diseases focused on uncovering the origins of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus.
In the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger and his team recently published a study of swine influenza virus evolution, comparing classical swine H1N1 viruses with European avian-like H1N1 viruses. Because the newly emerging H1N1 virus descended from both of these lineages, Taubenberger and his colleagues will expand their work and conduct similar analyses of the gene sequences of the novel H1N1 virus. Such detailed studies of the virus’s evolution will provide scientists with clues about the path and timing of host adaptation, as well as clues about which viral genes are associated with virulence.

“The current situation in 2009 with a large outbreak in people of a novel swine virus is unprecedented,” says Taubenberger. “We are studying the virus to understand how this strain emerged and to try to identify factors that allow it to spread and cause disease in humans.”

Taubenberger also is amending an established influenza research protocol at the Clinical Center to allow enrollment of patients found to have the newly emerging H1N1 strain. Patients will receive the best available care while scientists conduct a study of their clinical history, measure the amount of virus in respiratory secretions and evaluate various aspects of the body’s immune response to infection.

Developing Vaccines

Dr. Kanta Subbarao, also in the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, is collaborating with MedImmune, Inc., the manufacturer of the FluMist nasal spray influenza vaccine, to develop a vaccine against the newly emerging H1N1 virus. This collaboration is an expansion of ongoing work to make live, attenuated vaccines against other influenza strains such as H5N1, H7N3 and H2N2. Live, attenuated vaccines contain a version of the microbe that has been weakened in the lab so it cannot cause disease. Because a live, attenuated vaccine is the closest thing to a natural infection, it can elicit strong cellular and antibody responses.

For a potential vaccine against the newly emerging H1N1, MedImmune will generate a “seed virus” that will be used to grow virus for vaccine studies. NIAID scientists will perform studies in mice and ferrets to determine whether the vaccine candidate made from the virus is weak enough to not cause disease, strong enough to stimulate the immune system and efficient enough to protect against the H1N1 virus. Subbarao plans to conduct clinical trials to determine age-specific immune responses and whether certain age groups have pre-existing antibodies that might interact with the vaccine virus.

NIAID scientists have been able to react quickly to the newly emerging strain of H1N1 influenza virus, thanks to the institute’s ongoing program of public health research and support. With a strong foundation studying emerging infectious diseases, NIAID intramural scientists and their colleagues are well prepared to address health challenges as they arise. NIHRecord Icon

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