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NIH Funds New Center at Johns Hopkins to Improve Study and Tracking of Influenza Viruses - 05/05/2014

NIH Funds New Center at Johns Hopkins to Improve Study and Tracking of Influenza Viruses

Release Date: May 5, 2014
Richard Rothman, M.D., Ph.D
Richard Rothman, M.D., Ph.D
Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Fast Facts:

  • New flu research and surveillance center to focus on innovative ways to identify and track influenza viruses worldwide.
  • Researchers hope to rapidly identify new virus strains that could be next seasonal flu or have potential to trigger global pandemic.
  • Key project will involve building a database of influenza cases in real-time from hospitals and other health care facilities.
  • New Johns Hopkins center will be one of only five institutions in the United States to comprise NIH’s Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a contract to researchers at The Johns Hopkins University to launch a new center devoted to developing innovative ways to identify and track influenza viruses worldwide.

One top goal is to rapidly identify new influenza virus strains that may emerge as the next seasonal influenza or global pandemic that could threaten public health.

Under terms of the contract from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Johns Hopkins will be one of only five institutions in the United States to be a part of the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS). The institutions in the CEIRS network will pursue independent research projects collaborate on others.

“We are really honored to be awarded this contract,” says Richard Rothman, M.D., Ph.D., a co-director the new Johns Hopkins center. “It’s a testament to the caliber of the influenza research we’ve been doing here in the Hopkins community for a number of years.” Rothman also a professor and the vice chair of research in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

“We have an outstanding team of investigators who will come together through this center, advancing innovative approaches that will bridge large-scale surveillance with basic discovery. The goal is that our work will benefit public health in the U.S. and on a global scale,” adds Rothman.

A high priority for the Johns Hopkins center is to develop better ways to rapidly identify which circulating influenza virus strains are robust enough to infect large numbers of people and cause serious, widespread illness, said Andrew Pekosz, Ph.D.,  Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, who will co-direct the new center.

To that end, the Johns Hopkins CEIRS team plans to track human influenza virus strains in the United States and Taiwan as part of an effort build a database of influenza cases in real time from hospitals and other health care facilities.

The data will be stored in a central, cloud-based computer network so that researchers across the CEIRS network can access the information for their own projects and share insights and findings from across the country and around the world.

The center staff will also analyze genetic characteristics of influenza viruses and use genome sequencing technologies on viruses collected for the database.

Pekosz notes that a storehouse of such information could aid vaccine manufacturers in developing vaccines that better protect against circulating seasonal strains and give public health agencies and drug makers more lead time to prepare for a potential emerging pandemic.
Pekosz, who is also a member of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health and the Johns Hopkins Vaccine Initiative, says development of flu vaccines has improved greatly in recent years.

But he notes that developing seasonal flu vaccines can be a hit-or-miss proposition, with some vaccines not matching the strain that emerges as the dominant virus in a given year. Moreover, he says, development of a vaccine for influenza strains that break out as pandemics also suffers because of the time required to make a vaccine after identifying the new virus strain.

For example, Pekosz says, by the time the vaccine was ready for the H1N1 virus that showed up in the U.S. in 2009, the number of cases had fallen off and the serious public health threat the new virus posed had passed.
The Johns Hopkins CEIRS team hopes to improve the response to influenza epidemics and pandemics by isolating and characterizing new influenza virus strains faster and earlier in the influenza season, thereby giving more time to generate vaccines and formulate public health intervention policies.

Other projects the Johns Hopkins center will focus on include:
•Using human cell cultures to determine the likelihood of influenza viruses infecting humans;
•Using advanced computer modeling to assess how well different public health intervention strategies work to slow or mitigate an emerging pandemic;
•Using global modeling to assess a country or region’s risk for an epidemic or pandemic; and
•Developing tactical response training programs for medical support and virus surveillance for a pandemic.

“We are taking a very multidisciplinary approach to all our projects,” says Rothman. “This is a really exciting frontier of global medicine and public health, and it’s fitting that Johns Hopkins is taking a leadership role.”