Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have uncovered a critical difference between flu viruses that infect birds and humans, a discovery that could help scientists monitor the evolution of avian flu strains and aid in the development of vaccines against a deadly flu pandemic. The MIT researchers found that a virus's ability to infect humans depends on whether it can bind to one specific shape of receptor on the surface of human respiratory cells.
"Now that we know what to look for, this could help us not only monitor the bird flu virus, but it can aid in the development of potentially improved therapeutic interventions for both avian and seasonal flu," said Ram Sasisekharan, MIT Underwood Prescott Professor of Biological Engineering and Health Sciences and Technology, and the senior author of a paper on the work that appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of Nature Biotechnology.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a co-funder of the research, the virus can gain access only through a subset of the sugar molecules coating the cells of our upper airways.
"Using an approach that combines experimentation and database analysis, Sasisekharan's team has changed our view of flu viruses and how they must adapt to infect us," says Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the NIH component that supported the research. "The work may improve our ability to monitor the evolution of the H5N1 virus and thwart potential outbreaks."