Campus News

$1.1 million grant will be used to find ways to ID flu strains

The words “laser beam” often conjure up images of high-powered weapons or concert light shows, but lasers have many applications and fighting the deadliest types of flu may soon be added to the list.

UGA researchers are refining a nanotechnology-based method that uses laser light beams to more accurately predict emerging influenza strains-particularly strains with a risk of high mortality. The work will be funded by the National Institutes of Health and will total $1,124,914 over the next four years.

Influenza kills thousands of people each year worldwide-the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related deaths occurred annually in the U.S. alone from 1976 to 2007. Millions are immunized every year against influenza, but vaccines aren’t always effective because it is difficult to predict the flu strain for a given year.

Richard Dluhy, professor of chemistry in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, along with Stephen Tompkins and Ralph Tripp, associate professor and professor of infectious diseases, respectively, in the College of Veterinary Medicine, are refining a method used to identify virus strains so researchers can quickly detect components in viruses that affect influenza virulence.

Virulence-how easy or difficult it is for a disease to be passed along or to kill its host-is determined by the presence of molecules called virulence factors. Studies have shown that different types of influenza may contain the same virulence factors.

If certain proteins and other molecules within the viruses can be associated with particularly virulent strains of influenza, epidemiologists might be able to prevent the spread of those strains.

Employing a method he developed several years ago with UGA physics professor Yiping Zhao, Dluhy and his team will expose bits of influenza genetic material to an enhanced laser beam, which can penetrate the biological material without harming it. Researchers will be able to record minute changes in the reflected beam’s frequency and intensity.

These measurements, which resemble the squiggles on a seismograph chart, are unique for different strains of viruses, much like a fingerprint.

The method, also known as nano-optical detection, has proven viable for identifying whole viruses, but UGA researchers will take the process a step further by identifying virus components-the virulence factors-that survive from strain to strain.

“Nano-optical detection will help epidemiologists predict the appearance of deadlier flu strains with greater accuracy,” said Dluhy. “It will enable researchers to prepare the right types of vaccines far in advance of outbreaks.”

The method, said Dluhy, also may eliminate global pandemics if potential outbreaks can be spotted early and controlled with regional vaccination programs.