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Bird Flu :: University of Alaska Fairbanks awarded $3.8M for bird flu research

The University of Alaska Fairbanks announced today a $3.8 million award for its role in one of six National Institutes of Health Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance to study influenza viruses with pandemic potential, such as avian influenza H5N1.

UAF is a partner in an $18.5 million NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases award made to the University of California, Los Angeles for creation of the Center for Rapid Influenza Surveillance and Research.

“Our initial focus is on known avian reservoirs of influenza-A viruses such as waterfowl and shorebirds,” said Jonathan Runstadler, Institute of Arctic Biology assistant professor of biology and wildlife and the lead CRISAR investigator for UAF. “However, little is known about the role of the environment and about other groups of birds in the maintenance and evolution of influenza viruses worldwide.

“We want to understand how influenza viruses evolve, adapt and are successfully transmitted in nature,” said Runstadler. “No one fully understands how these viruses move around between species and in our environment.”

“Alaska is recognized as a prime location for transmission and reassortment of influenza-A virus strains between birds that migrate north from both eastern and western hemispheres,” said George Happ, CRISAR co-investigator and director of the NIH IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence at UA, which has supported UAF’s avian influenza work since 2004.

More than 450 species of migratory birds from six continents come to Alaska to nest each spring and summer. Scientists say that could provide an opportunity for exchange of bird flu viruses which could then infect humans.

“Our major goal is to understand the genetic changes of flu viruses and how those changes relate to their success in animal hosts and their persistence in the environment,” said Happ. “Alaska is a critical location to study the evolution of new strains of influenza in wild birds and their movement along avian flyways. The research of Kevin Winker at the University of Alaska Museum of the North and of our CRISAR group will include surveillance to isolate potentially pandemic strains of the influenza virus.”

UAF researchers expect to collect and test 4,000 samples from Alaska and another 4,000 samples from Russia and northern Japan each year for five years beginning this May. Fieldwork in the Russian Far East will be coordinated by Falk Huettmann, IAB assistant professor of wildlife ecology. Samples which test positive will be further characterized by the CRISAR group that includes UAF; University of California, Davis; UCLA; Wildlife Conservation Society; and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“At UAF, we will use the genetic information from UC Davis to continually refine existing studies and develop new research on the ecology of the influenza virus and the immune response of birds,” Runstadler said.

The CRISAR partners together plan to collect and screen at least 20,000 cloacal samples from wild and domestic animals at key sites in the western United States and Asia each year.

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