The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced today that it has achieved a major milestone.
The entire genetic blueprints of more than 2,000 human and avian influenza viruses taken from samples around the world have been completed and the sequence data made available in a public database.
“This information will help scientists understand how influenza viruses evolve and spread,” says NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., “and it will aid in the development of new flu vaccines, therapies and diagnostics.”
“Scientists around the world can use the sequence data to compare different strains of the virus, identify the genetic factors that determine their virulence, and look for new therapeutic, vaccine and diagnostic targets,” says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.
The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, initiated in 2004, has been carried out at the NIAID-funded Microbial Sequencing Center managed by The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) of Rockville, Maryland. The project is currently directed by David Spiro, Ph.D., and Claire Fraser, Ph.D., at TIGR and Elodie Ghedin, Ph.D., at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Recently, growing sequencing capacity has enabled the production rate to increase to more than 200 viral genomes per month. Eclipsing today?s milestone of 2,000 genomes, the microbial sequencing center will continue to rapidly sequence more influenza strains and isolates and will make all the sequence data freely available to the scientific community and the public through GenBank, an Internet-accessible database of genetic sequences maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at NIH?s National Library of Medicine, another major contributor to the project.
Seasonal influenza is a major public health concern in the United States, accounting for approximately 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations each year. Globally, influenza results in an estimated 250,000 to half a million deaths annually. Seasonal flu shots are updated every year to target the latest strains in circulation. Developing such vaccines is challenging, however, because the influenza virus is prone to high mutation rates when it replicates, and these mutations can alter the virus enough that vaccines against one strain may not protect against another strain.
An even greater concern is the potential for an influenza pandemic caused by the emergence of a new, highly lethal virus strain that is easily transmitted from person to person. Influenza pandemics have occurred three times in the last century, the most lethal of which was the pandemic of 1918, which caused an estimated 40 to 50 million deaths worldwide.
“A few years ago, only limited genetic information on influenza viruses existed in the public domain, and much of the sequence data was incomplete,” says Maria Y. Giovanni, Ph.D., who oversees the NIAID Microbial Sequencing Centers. “The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project has filled that gap by vastly increasing the amount of influenza sequence data and rapidly making it available to the entire scientific community. Subsequently, there has been a marked increase in the number of scientists worldwide depositing influenza genome sequence data into the public domain including scientists at St. Jude Children?s Research Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”