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St. Jude Children's Research Hospital has been designated one of six Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the National Institutes of Health.
NIAID will award $23 million per year for seven years to establish the consortium of centers, which includes St. Jude, according to Robert Webster, Ph.D., a member of the Infectious Diseases department and holder of the Rose Marie Thomas Chair at St. Jude. Webster, the principal investigator for the NIAID contract at St. Jude, also directs the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza Viruses in Lower Animals and Birds, one of only five such collaborating centers in the world.
The mission of the centers is to expand NIAID’s influenza surveillance program in the United States and internationally to determine how these viruses cause disease as well as how the human immune system responds to them. The goal is to help the federal government prepare for and respond to seasonal influenza as well as outbreaks of animal influenza that might cause pandemics, or worldwide epidemics, in humans.
St. Jude will perform both surveillance of influenza viruses and basic research under the new contract. “There are a variety of viruses to monitor besides the well-known H5N1,” Webster said. “For example, H7N7 infected chicken industry workers in the Netherlands; and H9N2, which circulates in many global avian populations, also sporadically appears in humans.”
The establishment of the six Centers of Excellence is an extension of work done by St. Jude under a contract NIAID awarded the institution in 1999, two years after the 1997 outbreak of H5N1 in Hong Kong. That program established surveillance in aquatic birds and in live bird markets in Hong Kong and supported the study of the natural history of influenza viruses that have the potential to cause a pandemic. The St. Jude team also trained investigators in animal influenza surveillance techniques, developed tests to detect these viruses and provided seed vaccines to NIAID.
The aim of the surveillance in the new contract is to track outbreaks of influenza virus infections in animals that routinely come into close contact with people and that have the potential to cause a pandemic. The investigators will monitor viruses in several U.S. states and in more than a dozen countries. In addition, through its collaborators in Hong Kong, St. Jude will monitor children admitted to hospitals in China for influenza and maintain a surveillance program for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Southeast Asia.
The basic research efforts are aimed at determining the molecular, ecological and/or environmental factors that influence how these viruses cause disease, how they spread and evolve and how the immune system responds to infection with these viruses. The Center of Excellence designation will also help St. Jude evaluate antiviral drug treatments and factors that cause drug resistance.
“This award recognizes both the enormous contribution that St. Jude has made over the last several decades in the study of animal influenza viruses, as well as our leadership role in this area,” said Richard Webby, Ph.D., assistant member in the Division of Virology in the Infectious Diseases department at St. Jude and a co-principal investigator for the St. Jude Center of Excellence research program.
The other five Centers of Excellence and their principal investigators are the University of California at Los Angeles (Scott Lane); University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (Marguerite Pappaioanou); Emory University, Atlanta (Richard Compans); Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York (Adolfo Garcia-Sastre) and the University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y. (John Treanor).
Other co-principal investigators on the St. Jude contract are Elena Govorkova, Erich Hoffman, Charles Russell and Peter Doherty.
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Founded by late entertainer Danny Thomas and based in Memphis, Tenn., St. Jude freely shares its discoveries with scientific and medical communities around the world. No family ever pays for treatments not covered by insurance, and families without insurance are never asked to pay. St. Jude is financially supported by ALSAC, its fundraising organization.