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Standing between the world and the chilling scenario of a new influenza onslaught like the devastating 1918 pandemic is St. Jude’s Robert Webster, PhD, a world-renowned flu expert and professor of virology. In addition to his position at St. Jude, Dr. Webster is a consultant to both the World Health Organization and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Dr. Webster’s laboratory tracks emerging new flu viruses and guides the development of flu vaccines to stop them. His work is vital to meeting the yearly challenge of stemming each winter’s flu epidemic.
When a new flu emerged in Hong Kong in 1997, killing poultry and jumping directly to humans, killing eight people, NIAID sent St. Jude’s Webster to Hong Kong. There, the St. Jude researcher identified the culprit – flu virus H5N1 – determined how it spread through poultry, and from poultry to humans, and insisted on the killing of 1.5 million chickens to halt the epidemic. He also recommended changes to Hong Kong authorities aimed at stopping the spread of viruses among chickens.
Back at St. Jude, Dr. Webster launched a further investigation into this frightening new outbreak. His laboratory discovered that this strain of flu virus was able to avoid tripping a key immune system alarm: the so-called cytokine response. The new information alerted researchers world-wide about a dangerous play this virus could use to render humans vulnerable to its onslaught.
Dr. Webster continues to study the structure and function of influenza virus proteins and is striving to develop new vaccines and antivirals. He’s also continuing to study the importance of wild birds as a major reservoir of influenza viruses and the role these animals play in the evolution of new pandemic viral strains among humans and lower animals.
Dr. Webster’s curriculum vitae contains over 400 original articles and reviews on influenza viruses. He has mentored many individuals who have been successful in contributing to our knowledge of influenza as an emerging pathogen. Dr. Webster’s investigations of the flu virus have won him important honors. In 1989, he was admitted to the highly prestigious Royal Society of London; and in 1998, he was appointed to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. In addition, Dr. Webster received the 12th annual Bristol-Myers Squibb Award in 2002 for his influenza research.