UT professors work to prevent flu

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Although flu season only comes around in the fall, researchers on campus are continually working to learn more about the virus and how it spreads.

Several UT professors focus their research on the influenza virus, including studying the virus itself and tracking and forecasting new strains. Lauren Meyers, director of statistics and scientific computing, works with the Texas Department of State Health Services to help predict pandemic flu outbreaks. After the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the department funded the Texas Pandemic Flu Toolkit, which Meyers’ research team created.

This month Meyers’ research team began four new flu-related projects. The team is creating two new tools for the online toolkit: an interface public officials can use to run exercises for simulated pandemic outbreaks and a new surveillance system for early detection of seasonal flu.

“It’s only been a few months since the full toolkit became available online and we haven’t been through flu season yet, but we are funding additional research and development of new tools for the toolkit,” department spokesperson Chris Van Deusen said.

The toolkit allows members to create their own simulations and forecasts or look at archived data. The toolkit is free for the public to access.

“The toolkit was created to look at pandemic flu, which are new strains that can spread from person to person,” Meyers said. “We’re probably still going to see H1N1 this year, but it’s not going to be a pandemic. It’s going to be seasonal since it’s not a new strain.”

Meyers said there won’t be another pandemic until a new strain begins to spread rapidly.

Meyers said her research is monitoring two strains, the H5N1 and H3N2V strains, for possible pandemics. She said the strains have been reported in humans, but neither strain has spread from person to person.

The reported cases have been in people who work in close proximity to livestock, including chickens and pigs.

Robert Krug, chair of the department of molecular genetics and microbiology, said flu pandemics caused by new strains like H1N1 can surprise researchers with unexpected molecular changes. Krug’s 13 years of research at UT has focused on the NS1A protein of the flu virus, which he said is common to every flu strain.

In his research on seasonal flu, Krug said he occasionally finds possible antivirals, which could be used to create preventative medicines for all flu strains with the same NS1A protein. However, he said the information is seldom used because the production of antivirals is expensive and unprofitable. 

“This is very basic research, but in the process we identify targets for antivirals.” Krug said. “It’s not easy to make antivirals. We don’t have the resources to do it right. That is something a pharmaceutical company could do, but they don’t.”

Printed on Wednesday, September 26, 2012 as: UT professors focus research on flu virus