NIAID launches influenza genome sequencing project

11/15/04

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), today announced a joint influenza genome sequencing project with several scientific partners. The project will help researchers understand how flu viruses evolve, spread and cause disease. According to its leaders, it has the potential to minimize the impact of annual flu outbreaks and to improve scientific knowledge of the emergence of pandemic flu viruses.

NIAID's collaborators include the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the NIH National Library of Medicine; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, TN; the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health in Troy, NY; the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC; and The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, MD.

The sequencing effort, to be conducted in part by the NIAID Microbial Sequencing Center at TIGR, will reveal complete genetic blueprints of thousands of known human and avian influenza viruses. NIAID will rapidly make this sequence information publicly available through GenBankŪ, an international, searchable online database funded by NIH, and the NIAID Bioinformatics Resource Center, a Web-accessible collection of genetic sequence information accompanied by data analysis tools.

"Influenza viruses present formidable scientific and public health challenges because they undergo continual genetic changes that enable them to evade the body's immune response and sometimes become more virulent," says Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of NIAID. "This project not only provides a valuable resource for current influenza researchers, it also will attract investigators from other fields. We anticipate that these data will be used to recognize patterns of genetic changes and illuminate important questions such as how avian influenza viruses adapt to infect humans."

"Our goal is to provide scientists with the infrastructure they need to uncover potential targets for new vaccines, therapies and diagnostics against influenza," says Maria Y. Giovanni, Ph.D., who oversees the NIAID Microbial Sequencing Centers initiative. "Putting influenza sequence data in the public domain will help epidemiologists and other researchers improve their understanding of the overall molecular evolution of influenza viruses and the genetic factors that determine their virulence."

"This project is the influenza-virus equivalent of the human genome project," says Robert G. Webster, Ph.D., professor of virology at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. St. Jude has a repository containing more than 12,000 avian influenza viruses collected over the past 27 years and will be the site for the sequencing of their genomes.

Despite annual vaccination programs, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized in the United States each year because of influenza, according to CDC. Influenza-related deaths average nearly 36,000 annually. Of increasing concern in Asia, avian influenza strains such as H5N1 continually mutate as they circulate among poultry, sometimes developing the ability to infect humans. Scientists are worried that such an avian virus could eventually mutate enough to be able to spread from person to person, resulting in a fast-moving, global pandemic.

David J. Lipman, M.D., director of NCBI, says that the whole genome sequence data generated by the influenza genomics project will be important references for researchers who study how influenza viruses cause disease, conduct global surveillance of influenza activity, and assist in the selection of the most appropriate virus strains to include in the annual influenza vaccine. The sequence information will provide a larger and more representative sample for influenza than previously available to the public. The project will also enhance pandemic preparedness efforts by publishing genomic sequences of emerging avian influenza viruses, allowing scientists worldwide to analyze the strains and begin development of vaccines against them.

Dr. Giovanni notes that NIAID is working with collaborators who have well-defined collections of human and avian influenza viruses. "Their expertise will help us prioritize, select and obtain strains so we can offer a library of viral sequences that will be critically important to the scientific community."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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