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The fight against the flu

What if we could predict when the next influenza pandemic will strike? Virologist Tijana Ivanovic has received a prestigious NIH grant to find a way to do just that.

Tijana IvanovicPhoto by Mike Lovett

Tijana Ivanovic

The flu shot has proven effective, but there are limits to its protection. The vaccine works only against strains of the flu, or influenza virus that are already infecting humans. Should a new type of flu virus emerge in humans, we would not have time to develop a new vaccine before it sweeps through the human population.

Past pandemics have killed tens of millions of people. Right now, there’s a flu virus called Asian Lineage Avian Influenza A (H7N9) that kills nearly one of every two people it infects. But humans can only get it from infected poultry. It can’t be spread by humans to each other. But if it could, the effects would be catastrophic.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that assistant professor of biochemistry Tijana Ivanovic has received a New Innovator Award to conduct research that may improve our chances of forecasting a flu pandemic. Right now, we have no way of predicting which strain of the flu virus will evolve and become capable of being passed from human to human. She hopes to change this.

The New Innovator Award is one of the most prestigious grants an early-career scientist can get. It’s part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program aimed at encouraging cutting-edge, out-of-the-box science. Ivanovic will receive $1.5 million over five years.

“This is an opportunity to start projects that are more risky, but that have the potential to be transformative,” said Ivanovic, who was also awarded a 2011 L'Oreal USA Fellowship for Women in Science award.

Ivanovic will apply her expertise in virology and advanced microscopy to understanding how viruses adapt to target humans. She will use a custom-built total internal reflection fluorescence microscope (TIRFM) capable of observing individual flu viruses in real time. She will compare viruses that can be transmitted from human to human to those that can’t.

Ivanovic will focus on a process known as membrane fusion, when the membrane of the virus merges with the membrane of a human cell, delivering its infectious cargo. She’s interested in defining the molecular changes in the virus that enable it to invade human cells.

Next, it may be possible to figure out which viruses are preparing to adapt and infect humans. Then we could combat the viruses before they acquire the ability to spread widely. “Right now we can’t preemptively stop a virus from causing a pandemic,” said Ivanovic. “This line of research might put us in the position to make predictions.”

A full list of NIH Director's New Innovator Award Recipients can be found here

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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