Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Study uncovers cause of flu epidemics

06.03.2008
The exchange of genetic material between two closely related strains of the influenza A virus may have caused the 1947 and 1951 human flu epidemics, according to biologists.

The findings could help explain why some strains cause major pandemics and others lead to seasonal epidemics. Until now, it was believed that while reassortment – when human influenza viruses swap genes with influenza viruses that infect birds – causes severe pandemics, such as the ‘Spanish’ flu of 1918, the ‘Asian’ flu of 1957, and the ‘Hong Kong’ flu of 1968, while viral mutation leads to regular influenza epidemics. But it has been a mystery why there are sometimes very severe epidemics – like the ones in 1947 and 1951 – that look and act like pandemics, even though no human-bird viral reassortment event occurred.

“There was a total vaccine failure in 1947. Researchers initially thought there was a problem in manufacturing the vaccine, but they later realized that the virus had undergone a tremendous evolutionary change,” said Martha Nelson, lead author and a graduate student in Penn State’s Department of Biology. “We now think that the 1947 virus did not just mutate a lot, but that this unusual virus was made through a reassortment event involving two human viruses.

“So we have found that the bipolar way of looking at influenza evolution is incorrect, and that reassortment can be an important driver of epidemic influenza as well as pandemic influenza,” said Nelson, whose team’s findings appear in the current issue of PLoS Pathogens. “We have discovered that you can also have reassortment between viruses that are much more similar, that human viruses can reassort with each other and not just with bird viruses. ”

Nelson and her colleagues analyzed the evolutionary patterns in the H1N1 strain of the influenza A viruses by looking at 71 whole-genome sequences sampled between 1918 and 2006 and representing 17 different countries on five continents.

Using the genome data, the researchers constructed phylogenetic trees representing evolutionary relationships across all eight genome segments of the virus.

Big differences in the shapes of these eight trees signified that reassortment events had occurred.

The swapping of genes between two closely related strains of the influenza A virus through reassortment may also have caused the 1951 epidemic, which looked and acted in many ways like a pandemic as well. Deaths in the United Kingdom and Canada from this epidemic exceeded those from the 1957 and 1968 pandemics.

Currently, there are many types of influenza virus that circulate only in birds, which are natural viral reservoirs. Though the viruses do not seem to cause severe disease symptoms in birds, so far three of these viral types have infected humans – H1N1, H2N2, and H3N2.

Understanding how each strain evolves over time is crucial. H3N2 is the dominant strain and evolves much more rapidly than H1N1. So the H1N1 component of each year’s flu vaccine has to be updated less often. In comparison, the H3N2 component of the vaccine has been changed four times over the past seven years.

“Last year the infections were dominated by H1N1 but we had no way of predicting it,” said Nelson. “This year the vaccine failure is due to the H3N2 mismatch because researchers picked the wrong strain.”

The H1N1 virus is particularly unusual because it disappeared completely in 1957, only to mysteriously re-emerge in humans in 1977 in exactly the same form in which it had left. It is still not certain what happened to the virus during its disappearance. But since it did not evolve at all over these twenty years, “the only plausible explanation is that it was some kind of a lab escape,” says Nelson, who is also affiliated with Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD).

In recent decades, flu infections in the United States have been dominated by yet another reassorted viral strain known as H3N2. This strain caused the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968, which killed nearly a million people.

The Penn State researcher says the study shows that the evolution of a virus is not limited to the mutation of single lineage, and that there are multiple strains co-circulating and exchanging genetic material. The H1N1 and H3N2 strains, for instance, are occasionally generating hybrid H1N2 viruses.

“If we really want effective vaccines each year, our surveillance has to be much broader than simply looking at one lineage and its evolution, and trying to figure out how it is going to evolve by mutation,” said Nelson. “You have to look at a much bigger picture.”

Amitabh Avasthi | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.psu.edu

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Some brain tumors may respond to immunotherapy, new study suggests
11.12.2018 | Columbia University Irving Medical Center

nachricht Climate change and air pollution damaging health and causing millions of premature deaths
30.11.2018 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Data use draining your battery? Tiny device to speed up memory while also saving power

The more objects we make "smart," from watches to entire buildings, the greater the need for these devices to store and retrieve massive amounts of data quickly without consuming too much power.

Millions of new memory cells could be part of a computer chip and provide that speed and energy savings, thanks to the discovery of a previously unobserved...

Im Focus: An energy-efficient way to stay warm: Sew high-tech heating patches to your clothes

Personal patches could reduce energy waste in buildings, Rutgers-led study says

What if, instead of turning up the thermostat, you could warm up with high-tech, flexible patches sewn into your clothes - while significantly reducing your...

Im Focus: Lethal combination: Drug cocktail turns off the juice to cancer cells

A widely used diabetes medication combined with an antihypertensive drug specifically inhibits tumor growth – this was discovered by researchers from the University of Basel’s Biozentrum two years ago. In a follow-up study, recently published in “Cell Reports”, the scientists report that this drug cocktail induces cancer cell death by switching off their energy supply.

The widely used anti-diabetes drug metformin not only reduces blood sugar but also has an anti-cancer effect. However, the metformin dose commonly used in the...

Im Focus: New Foldable Drone Flies through Narrow Holes in Rescue Missions

A research team from the University of Zurich has developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is particularly useful when searching for victims of natural disasters.

Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire is exactly the kind of job that human rescuers would like drones to do for them. A flying...

Im Focus: Topological material switched off and on for the first time

Key advance for future topological transistors

Over the last decade, there has been much excitement about the discovery, recognised by the Nobel Prize in Physics only two years ago, that there are two types...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

ICTM Conference 2019: Digitization emerges as an engineering trend for turbomachinery construction

12.12.2018 | Event News

New Plastics Economy Investor Forum - Meeting Point for Innovations

10.12.2018 | Event News

EGU 2019 meeting: Media registration now open

06.12.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Data use draining your battery? Tiny device to speed up memory while also saving power

14.12.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Tangled magnetic fields power cosmic particle accelerators

14.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

In search of missing worlds, Hubble finds a fast evaporating exoplanet

14.12.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>