An international research team led by Lukas Tamm of the University of Virginia School of Medicine will receive $1.35 million from the Human Frontier Science Program Organization to better understand how the influenza virus passes from birds to humans. This could lead to the creation of a new tool to predict the risk of outbreaks of potentially deadly avian flu.
The researchers will look at changes to the flu virus’ envelope – the shell that lets it bind to and infect cells – as the virus adapts to different hosts. By better understanding this, scientists will be better able to determine the risk that a new virus could infect humans and potentially cause a pandemic.
“Previous research has mostly focused on changes in cell attachment and genome replication that are different between avian and human flu viruses, but our working hypothesis is that bird flu is subject to vastly different temperature and environment cycles upon transmission through the fecal-oral route than human flu, which is transmitted through aerosols and lung tissue,” said Tamm, of U.Va.’s Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics. “Our international team of investigators will test the temperature hypothesis of host adaptation by looking at viral envelope remodeling as bird flu strains adapt to human transmission conditions.”
In bird flu’s current form, humans can contract it only through direct contact with birds. In the wake of increasing human infections, however, some scientists fear that a virus could mutate and become transmissible from person to person, possibly resulting in a pandemic akin to the Spanish flu that killed more than 50 million people in the early 20th century.
To better understand how the virus adapts to new hosts, Tamm will bring his expertise in membranes to a team that includes structural biologist Kay Grünewald of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom; virologist Michael Veit of Freie Universität Berlin in Germany; and biochemist Markus Wenk of the National University of Singapore.
Tamm’s team will receive $450,000 each year for three years. It earned one of only 21 awards made from more than 900 applications. In evaluating Tamm’s grant application, one reviewer commented, “The comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach here … is innovative and highly professional.”
The grant program aims to support cutting-edge research by fostering collaboration and enabling teams to bring together expertise from around the world. This year’s awards went to labs in 24 different countries. (Full list of awards.)
After three years, the researchers will report their findings to an annual meeting of the Human Frontier Science Program Organization, in addition to publishing their findings in scientific journals.