Athens, Ga. – The National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Georgia a $7.4 million contract to collaborate with Emory University through its new Regional Center for Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. Emory and UGA will receive a total of $32.8 million over seven years from the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to establish one of six new national influenza centers.
The center’s principal investigator and executive director is Richard Compans, Emory professor and chair of the department of microbiology and immunology. Dr. Walter Orenstein, professor of medicine and associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, will serve as associate director for operations management and initiatives. Ralph Tripp, Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar in vaccine development at the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, will serve as the center’s associate director for research.
“We’re excited about this opportunity to partner with Emory on research that will help us better understand influenza viruses so that the nation can better prepare for and respond to seasonal influenza as well a potential pandemic,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research. “This collaboration is further proof of the ability of the state’s research institutions to partner with each other and the federal government on research that improves and protects human life.”
In addition to Emory, the other influenza centers are located at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Minnesota, Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and University of Rochester in New York.
The Emory center will study how influenza viruses adapt to new hosts and are transmitted between hosts as well as human immune responses to influenza vaccination and infection. Researchers will explore how immune memory influences the human response to new influenza strains. In addition, scientists will evaluate flu transmission between patients and physicians in the hospital emergency room setting. Emory will also offer a training program for postdoctoral fellows interested in influenza and other research performed in a biosafety level 3 laboratory.
At UGA, Tripp will work with GRA eminent scholar and Caswell Eidson Chair in Poultry Medicine Egbert Mundt, professor Zhen Fu, and assistant professors Mark Tompkins and Jeff Hogan to explore the genetic factors that allow viruses to spread from animals to humans, how influenza viruses change as they move through different species and the factors that play a role in the ability of the viruses to cause disease in the different species. The researchers will also explore the ability of current antiviral drugs to target viruses and will work to develop new antivirals based on strategies that silence the gene expression of viruses. In addition, UGA scientists will study how human genes might be “silenced” to decrease or eliminate flu infections to identify new targets for antiviral medicines. UGA will offer a training program for D.V.M and Ph.D. students interested in influenza and biocontainment research.
“Threats such as avian influenza clearly demonstrate the link between animal health and human health,” said Sheila Allen, dean of the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. “With our nationally recognized researchers and state-of-the-art facilities, the College of Veterinary Medicine is well positioned to support this national effort to reduce the impact of influenza.”
The Georgia Research Alliance has made a $2.5 million matching commitment over five years in support of the center. “The center is a significant milestone in our strategy to further Georgia as a national leader in vaccine and antiviral research and development,” GRA President Michael Cassidy said.