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Influenza research pioneer Robert Webster, PhD, strolls the beach at Delaware Bay during a trip to gather influenza samples from gulls and shorebirds.

Keeping Flu at Bay

When birds alight at Delaware Bay for a crab feast, influenza researchers gather data that may save lives worldwide.

By Chris Pennington; Photos by Jere Parobek

Each spring, a team from the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Department of Infectious Diseases travels to Delaware Bay in New Jersey. They go to collect samples from shorebirds and gulls. Many of these birds use the area as a stopover during an 8,000-mile migration.

This stopover is a unique location for influenza research. What researchers find out from the birds at Delaware Bay helps scientists create vaccines for humans and animals and possibly prevent pandemics.

Internal travel clock

Timing is critical.

After the first full moon in May, horseshoe crabs arrive at the shore to lay their eggs. Birds called red knots migrate from Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America to the Arctic, where they will breed.

Robert Webster, PhD, St. Jude emeritus faculty member, first visited the site in 1985.

 “Delaware Bay is absolutely unique,” he says. “The red knots build fat reserves while in South America to make the trip. During migration, red knots are joined by others called ruddy turnstones. These birds are known to be the main carriers of influenza A viruses at Delaware Bay, and they depend upon the horseshoe crab eggs to provide fuel for the next part of the journey. During their stopover they bring in influenza.”

Infected birds

For flu research, Delaware Bay is an anomaly. More shorebirds there have influenza viruses than anywhere else in the world—so much so that the scientific community questioned Webster’s findings until other researchers confirmed it.

Delaware Bay offers a perfect environment for many aquatic animals, especially horseshoe crabs. During the time when the horseshoe crabs are laying eggs, the shore and the crabs are protected by conservation measures. Wildlife biologists run tests on the birds and tag them for research.

Scientists obtain samples from the birds for flu research. The samples return to St. Jude, where investigators isolate the viruses and provide information to the World Health Organization (WHO) about potential viruses for vaccine strains.

Researchers spread out a cannon net on the beach.

A cannon net is used to gather the birds while they feed on horseshoe crab eggs.

Pamela McKenzie and Robert Webster gather around a cooler while Jon Seiler inserts samples.

Jon Seiler (left), Pamela McKenzie and Robert Webster, PhD, collect the birds’ fecal samples for influenza surveillance.

A hand putting vials of samples into a divided box.

This year, the team gathered more than 600 samples, which were placed in vials and transported to St. Jude, where researchers run tests in the lab.

Young children are at high risk for serious complications from influenza.

The disease is especially dangerous for children with cancer and other life-threatening disorders.


Flu pioneers

Young children are at high risk for serious complications from influenza. The disease is especially dangerous for children with cancer and other life-threatening disorders. That’s why Webster has dedicated his life to influenza research.

Before visiting Delaware Bay in 1985, he had been studying flu for nearly 15 years, including research at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and at St. Jude. He also tested waterfowl in West Memphis, Arkansas, and at waterfowl nesting grounds in Alberta, Canada.

St. Jude has been at the forefront of influenza research for decades.

Led by Webster, the hospital was designated a WHO Collaborating Center in 1975 for the study of influenza at the human-animal interface. The hospital is one of five Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS) of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Robert Webster initiated the influenza research at Delaware Bay,” says Scott Krauss, manager of laboratory operations for WHO/CEIRS Global Surveillance at St. Jude. “We’re just following what he established. He was the first in, and he did it with support from St. Jude.”

Webster’s work with avian flu, originally funded under a grant titled “Pandemic Preparedness in Asia,” was later converted to a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) contract.

“The impact of Dr. Webster’s work and its significance in public health led to an NIAID initiative to build capacity so that others in the scientific community could study influenza,” says Pamela McKenzie, director of St. Jude CEIRS Global Surveillance.

Karlie Woodard uses a tool to prepare the dozens of eggs.

Karlie Woodard, a research technologist in St. Jude Infectious Diseases, prepares eggs in order to isolate viruses from the samples. The scientists will then determine whether the samples are flu-positive for surveillance purposes.

Tracking flu to save lives

Delaware Bay is the longest, most well-established site for influenza A virus surveillance in shorebirds. It’s an important component for pandemic preparedness, prevention and planning.

Ironically, the birds with flu appear completely healthy. Unlike in humans, these birds and the flu have formed an equilibrium. The flu thrives in the birds’ guts and doesn’t harm them.

Research like this also helps St. Jude Infectious Diseases’ scientists understand how the flu is evolving. Webster says it’s a difficult target.

Before he became an emeritus faculty member, Webster routinely represented St. Jude at the semi-annual WHO vaccine selection conferences. He joined scientists from the other WHO Collaborating Centers to designate which influenza strains should go into the vaccine for the coming year.

Today, Richard Webby, PhD, director of the St. Jude CEIRS program, attends that meeting and carries on Webster’s work. The samples collected at Delaware Bay each year contribute information that helps scientists prepare for future pandemics or dangerous outbreaks in animals.


Flu forecasters

Predicting the next flu strain in humans is somewhat like predicting the weather, Webster says.

“We’re pretty successful for the most part, but you cannot predict when there is going to be a pandemic,” he says. “In 2009, we were preparing for a bird flu pandemic, and what did Mother Nature do? She gave us a virus out of pigs.

“If the virus goes from Delaware Bay to the chicken farms, things change,” Webster continues. “That flu content in the gut of a ruddy turnstone can get nasty. It can become a killer.”

From Promise, Autumn 2017

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