$26 Million NIH Contract To Establish New Flu/Bird Flu Center of Excellence

April 02, 2007

A research team at the University of Rochester Medical Center has been awarded $26 million to establish a research center with the goal of making seasonal influenza and future influenza pandemics less deadly. The seven-year contract, announced today by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, will create the New York Influenza Center of Excellence (NYICE), a collaboration of the University of Rochester, Cornell University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and community partners. NYICE will be one of six centers nationally that together will receive approximately $138 million in new flu research funding over seven years.

The flu pandemic of 1918 killed more than 50 million people worldwide. Despite new vaccine technologies developed since then, flu remains the most common cause of vaccine-preventable death in the United States, causing 36,000 deaths annually and up to 200,000 hospital stays. In addition, the H5N1 subtype of avian flu viruses (“bird flu”) continues to spread with migrating waterfowl, increasing the risk of bird-to-human infection and the chance that the virus will become more easily passed from person to person.

Drugs are available to treat influenza – amantadine, rimantadine, zanamivir and oseltamivir – but many flu strains have developed drug-resistant strains. Researchers do not yet know the degree of protection that experimental bird flu vaccines currently under development will provide, and authorities do not yet have the ability to stockpile approved, effective vaccines in advance of an outbreak.

Each of the six new centers will focus on basic research, surveillance studies or both. Teams will breakdown the molecular and environmental factors that influence the transmission and evolution of flu viruses and further study the immune system’s reaction to them. Others will seek to identify strains with pandemic potential, to create new vaccine candidates or to bolster pandemic preparedness. Along with the University of Rochester, recipients of the new contracts are Emory University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, University of California at Los Angeles and University of Minnesota at Minneapolis.

“The current strategy of relying on vaccines that match each year’s particular strain imposes severe limitations on our ability to prepare for a pandemic,” said John J. Treanor M.D., professor of Medicine and of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “Our goal is to transform our understanding of influenza through intensive and synergistic exploration of the virus, the human host, and the immune system. We hope that this will lead to more effective control of the viruses through a single vaccine that can be effective against many strains,” said Treanor, principal investigator for the new center.

NYICE Research Goals

Two roadblocks hinder the nation’s efforts to be better prepared for the next pandemic. First, current vaccines do not provide lasting immunity against all current and near-future strains of the virus (not cross-protective). Thus, current vaccines cannot be stockpiled because viral changes each year render the previous year’s vaccines ineffective. Secondly, although avian viruses present a known risk for starting a pandemic, exactly how they adapt to humans is not known. NYICE will seek to address these questions through the following five projects:

  • Project 1: Study how white blood cells (T cells and B cells) recognize qualities shared by many different influenza strains on the way to designing a vaccine that would confer permanent immunity.
  • Project 2: Determine the specific proteins within the virus that turn on “helper” T cells, causing them to attack infected cells and result in better antibody responses to infection or vaccination.
  • Project 3: Understand how immune cells communicate with one another in response to infection and vaccination.
  • Project 4: Explore how the viral protein, hemagglutinin, changes as avian viruses genetically jump from birds to mammals. The protein is involved in the ability of the virus to stick to mammalian cells, a first step in invasion. This project will be led out of Cornell University.
  • Project 5: Study the qualities of viral polymerase, the enzyme used by the virus to copy its genetic material, and at how it becomes better at encouraging viral reproduction in mammalian cells.

Researchers will follow college students, healthy adults and 150 families with young children in the Rochester area for seven years, monitoring them for exposure to flu and responses to vaccination. All data will be captured and shared through an NIH database. The projects are set to begin April 1.

“Our goal is to better understand the human immune response to vaccination and infection so that we can improve vaccines against emerging influenza viruses, like the bird flu, that pose the risk of causing a pandemic,” said David Topham, Ph.D., associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical Center and co-director of the NYICE. “The need to make a new vaccine each year puts enormous strain on our ability to provide adequate amounts in a timely fashion and vaccine shortages, not stockpiles, are the result. The new centers hope to answer urgent questions, and ultimately, to save lives.”

“We are tremendously excited about the new center as a powerful example of cutting-edge translational science at our medical school,” said David S. Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “The knowledge obtained from these studies will be vital if we are to catch up with these fast-evolving pathogens to prevent the next worldwide epidemic.”

“The threat of an influenza pandemic is a growing source of concern for those charged with protecting public health,” said Bradford Berk, M.D. Ph.D., CEO of the Medical Center. “The new center will facilitate the nation’s preparations for a potential pandemic and further our understanding of influenza viruses.”

“The University of Rochester is playing a pivotal role in international efforts to develop an effective response to the most threatening forms of flu by taking part in studies that address everything from vaccine safety to the effectiveness of booster shots and additives,” said Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester. “We are very proud of the fact that more people in Rochester have been immunized against bird flu than in nearly any other community in the world."

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