Emory Report
April 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 26

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April 9, 2007
NIH awards $32.8 million to Emory to create influenza center of excellence

by holly korschun and tanya cassingham

The National Institutes of Health has awarded Emory School of Medicine a $32.8 million contract over seven years to establish a Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. The award, from the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, includes a subcontract to the University of Georgia. The Emory center is one of six national influenza centers announced by the NIH.

The center’s principal investigator and executive director is Richard Compans, Emory professor and chair of the department of microbiology and immunology. Walter Orenstein, professor of medicine and associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, will serve as associate director for operations management and initiatives. Ralph Tripp, Georgia Research Alliance chair of animal health vaccine development and GRA eminent scholar at the University of Georgia, will serve as associate director for research.

The Emory center will conduct studies to determine how flu viruses adapt to new hosts and are transmitted between different hosts, and will analyze human immune responses to flu vaccination and infection. The researchers will examine how human genes might be “silenced” to decrease or eliminate flu infections; identify new targets for antiviral medicines; study how immune memory influences the human response to new flu strains; and evaluate flu transmission between patients and physicians in the hospital emergency room setting. Emory will also offer a training program for postdoctoral fellows and veterinarians interested in flu and other research.

“Emory has a very successful and long-term history of research and clinical excellence in infectious diseases,” said Compans. “We look forward to joining this important national effort in advancing research in influenza prevention and surveillance.”

The GRA has made a $2.5 million matching commitment over five years in support of the center. “The center is a significant milestone in our strategy to further Georgia as a national leader in vaccine and antiviral research and development,” said GRA President Michael Cassidy.

Four research projects will be central to the mission of Emory’s influenza center:
• The role of the flu virus hemagglutinin protein in interspecies transmission and pathogenicity: This study will examine functional activities of the proteins of avian flu viruses that have been circulating extensively and will determine features important for viral entry into cells. Researchers will analyze how normal and mutant viral proteins bind to specific carbohydrates.

• Determinants of transmission of avian flu viruses and mutant viruses: Researchers will characterize viruses that are efficiently transmitted to other species with respect to their pathogenicity, immune responses to viral infection and susceptibility to disease intervention strategies.

• Immune memory effects on response to flu infection: Investigators will study the mechanism of “original antigenic sin,” in which the immune system responds to a flu strain from an earlier exposure rather than to a new strain. This blind spot of the immune system exacerbates the severity of new flu infections, and a better understanding of this phenomenon has important implications for vaccination.

• Characterization of the immune response to flu vaccines in humans: Investigators will seek to understand the precise nature of vaccine-induced immunity in humans, including the type, strength and magnitude of antiviral immune responses in vaccinated humans and distinct immune responses to different types of flu vaccine.

Additional components of the center include:
• A data management team will manage and ensure broad dissemination of the center’s research results, with the goal of advancing research and developing therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics.

• The Emory center will support a training/career development program focusing on basic research in viral pathogenesis and immunology with the goal of producing highly qualified independent investigators who will make significant contributions to research.

Pilot Projects:
• Investigators will focus on identifying cellular genes required for infection but not essential for the host cell.

• Investigators will use radio frequency detection to measure patient and hospital staff contact. Coupled with other clinical data, these assessments will help give reliable estimates of the interactions between staff and patients in emergency departments with respect to both time and distance. Studies will take place in the emergency department of Emory Crawford Long Hospital.