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PVM Virologist's Bird Flu Vaccine Research Attracts Increased Attention

When the World Health Organization warned in a news conference in April that the virus behind a bird flu outbreak in China, H7N9, was one of the most lethal seen in recent years, new attention was focused on research conducted by Dr. Suresh Mittal, Purdue Veterinary Medicine professor of comparative pathobiology.  Dr. Mittal explains that a new vaccination method he developed incorporates genes from multiple strains of the virus and creates protection that could persist through different mutations.  "Avian influenza viruses are moving targets that rapidly evolve and evade vaccines that are specific to a predicted strain," Dr. Mittal said. "We need a vaccine that protects against a spectrum of strains to prepare for a potential pandemic. Such a vaccine may not offer full protection from the strain that pops up, but even partial protection could save lives and buy time to create a more effective vaccine."

Dr. Mittal created vaccines for past strains of bird flu and continues to collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Dr. Mittal's method uses a harmless adenovirus as a vector to deliver avian influenza virus genes into the body where they create a two-fold immune response of antibody and cell-based protection. The adenovirus vector-infected host cells produce influenza proteins that lead to the creation of antibodies and special T-cells primed to kill the virus and any cells infected by it.

Any genes important to avian influenza virus protection can be incorporated into the adenovirus vector, and it can be designed to expose the immune system to both the surface and internal components of the virus. In this way, Dr. Mittal explains, the immune system can be primed to recognize portions of the virus that predominately remain the same across all strains and those that are more difficult for the virus to change as it adapts to the immune system attack.

Dr. Mittal and CDC collaborators created a vaccine in 2006 for the H5N1 bird flu virus, and the work was described in papers for The Lancet, The Journal of Infectious Diseases and the journal Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

The CDC reports that, during the outbreak in China, more than 130 human infections with H7N9 were reported.  The vast majority occurred during the month of April, and many of the people infected with H7N9 reported contact with poultry. The CDC further reported that, while some mild illness in human cases was seen, most patients had severe respiratory illness and 43 people died.

"The strain responsible for this outbreak appears not to be easily transmitted from person to person, which occurs effectively in a pandemic situation," Dr. Mittal explained. "Fortunately, avian influenza in humans tends to replicate deep in the lungs where it can't easily get out through coughing. However, the more people this virus infects, the more chances it has to evolve."  The CDC says it is following this situation closely and coordinating with domestic and international partners.

To view the CDC statement on the H7N9 strain, click here.

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