Database of 2,000 Flu Genomes Open for Vaccine Makers

ROCKVILLE, Maryland, February 23, 2007 (ENS) - The genetic blueprints of more than 2,000 human and avian influenza viruses taken from samples around the world now are available in a public database to scientists everywhere for use in developing new vaccines and therapies.

The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, began in 2004, is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID, one of the National Institutes of Health.

"This information will help scientists understand how influenza viruses evolve and spread," NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni said Wednesday, "and it will aid in the development of new flu vaccines, therapies and diagnostics."

Zerhouni

Dr. Elias Zerhouni is director of the National Institutes of Health. (Photo courtesy NIH)
The project has been carried out at the Microbial Sequencing Center, managed by The Institute for Genomic Research, TIGR, of Rockville, Maryland.

The Center will sequence more flu strains and samples and make all sequence data freely available to the scientific community and the public through GenBank.

The Internet accessible database of genetic sequences is maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at NIH's National Library of Medicine, another major contributor to the project.

Collaborators on the project include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the World Organization for Animal Health/Food and Agriculture Organization Reference Laboratory for Newcastle Disease and Avian Influenza in Padova, Italy; and Canterbury Health Laboratories in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Scientists around the world can use the sequence data to compare different strains of the virus, identify the genetic factors that determine their virulence, and look for new therapeutic, vaccine and diagnostic targets,” says NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, M.D.

The project is directed by David Spiro, Ph.D., and Claire Fraser, Ph.D., at TIGR and Elodie Ghedin, Ph.D., at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Ghedin

Dr. Elodie Ghedin sits in front of the image of an influenza genome. (Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)
While deciphering genetic code was once a lengthy and laborious process, automated technology now allows for rapid, large-scale genomic sequencing.

Recently, growing sequencing capacity has enabled the production rate to increase to more than 200 viral genomes per month.

Seasonal influenza is a major public health concern in the United States, accounting for approximately 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations each year.

Globally, influenza results in an estimated 250,000 to half a million deaths annually.

Seasonal flu shots are updated every year to target the latest strains in circulation. Developing such vaccines is challenging, however, because the influenza virus is prone to high mutation rates when it replicates, and these mutations can alter the virus enough that vaccines against one strain may not protect against another strain.

An even greater concern is the potential for an influenza pandemic caused by the emergence of a new, highly lethal virus strain that is easily transmitted from person to person.

Health experts worry that the H5N1 viral strain of avian influenza that has caused ... human deaths in ... countries as well as the deaths of hundreds of millions of poultry might mutate into a virus that easily spreads from human to human.

At the same time, progress is being made in developing a vaccine against the H5N1 virus.

Last week, the World Health Organization, WHO, said 16 manufacturers from 10 countries are developing prototype pandemic influenza vaccines to immunize humans against H5N1 avian influenza virus. Five of them are also involved in the development of vaccines against other avian viruses (H9N2, H5N2, and H5N3).

At present, more then 40 clinical trials have been completed or are ongoing. Most of them have focused on healthy adults. Some companies, after completing safety analyses in adults, have initiated clinical trials in the elderly and in children. All vaccines were safe and well tolerated in all age groups tested.

For the first time, results presented at a meeting February 16 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva have convincingly demonstrated that vaccination with newly developed avian influenza vaccines can bring about a potentially protective immune response against strains of H5N1 virus found in a variety of locations.

Some of the vaccines work with low doses of antigen, which means that significantly more vaccine doses can be available in case of a pandemic.

In spite of the encouraging progress, WHO stresses that the world still lacks the manufacturing capacity to meet potential global pandemic influenza vaccine demand. Current capacity is estimated at less than 400 million doses per year of trivalent seasonal influenza vaccine.

In response to this challenge, WHO launched in 2006 the Global pandemic influenza action plan to increase vaccine supply, a US$10 billion effort over 10 years.

One of its aims is to enable developing countries to establish their own influenza vaccine production facilities through transfer of technology, providing them with the most sustainable and reliable response to the threat of pandemic influenza.

WHO is currently working with several vaccine producers, mainly in developing countries affected by H5N1, to facilitate establishment of in-country influenza vaccine production.

The GenBank genome data is online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genomes/FLU/FLU.html