Westmead leads Australian bird flu research

February 20, 2006

Researchers at Westmead Millennium Institute are conducting urgent research into bird flu.

Avian Influenza (commonly known as bird flu) poses a serious threat to global health with experts predicting it could seriously affect millions of people worldwide.

In response to the urgent need for knowledge about this virulent flu strain, researchers at Westmead Millennium Institute (WMI) are investigating ways of rapidly and accurately detecting the virus whilst monitoring it's spread in human populations.

A/Prof Jon Iredell and his team are creating a portable diagnostic system that can identify the presence of bird flu in a human sample within 2 hours.

This project has been established in partnership with the University of Sydney and Corbett Research.

"This beauty of this technology is that it is flexible and highly sensitive" explains A/Prof Jon Iredell. "This means it can be adapted to make precise diagnosis in an individual or to test a planeload passengers in a couple of hours"

"We can also use it in hospitals to detect illnesses which mimic or worsen flu and to pick up any flu cases that may be resistant to treatment".

Researchers at the Centre for Virus Research at WMI are concentrating on the finer detail, using a process they previously developed for the SARS outbreak to quickly identify mutations in the flu virus.

"Viruses can mutate or change quickly. A major mutation in the genetic make-up of the virus may make it more infectious or harder to treat" says Professor Cunningham.

"The new technologies we have developed at the Centre will enable us to identify any changes quickly, so as to prevent spread of a virus that is potentially more infectious or resistant to available antivirals."

These projects have already begun and are anticipated to be successfully completed in the near future.
Available for interview
Prof Cunningham - Director, WMI. Infectious disease specialist, Westmead.
A/Prof Iredell - Senior Researcher, WMI. Infectious Disease specialist, Westmead.

Contact Gayle McNaught on (+61) 0423 797 388 (mob) , 612 9845 9009 (office) or gayle_mcnaught@wmi.usyd.edu.au

Information about bird flu
Avian influenza (commonly known as bird flu) is a contagious viral infection that can affect all species of birds. Whilst most strains of are non-infectious to humans, the recent growth of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain has resulted in increasing outbreaks of infection and mortality in people who have come into close contact with diseased poultry.

All cases recorded so far have been bird to human transmission but there is a strong possibility that the virus may adapt to spread easily from human to human. Without appropriately tailored diagnostic, antiviral treatment and infection control strategies, this adaptation may lead to a global pandemic similar in proportions to the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918.

As of 12th February 2006, the World Health Organisation has recorded 169 infections and 91 deaths from the H5N1 influenza strain with these infections occurring in Vietnam, China and Hong Kong, Indonesia and more recently Turkey.

The exact incubation period in humans is unknown but could be up to 7 days.

Information about WMI research grants

Title - Novel, high throughput platform for rapid identification, quantification, differential diagnosis and resistance testing of influenza.

Researchers - Jon Iredell (Chief Investigator), Dominic Dwyer, Keith Stanley, B Harrison, Belinda Herring, Lyn Gilbert, A Kesson.

Amount awarded--$332,750 over 12 months

This project aims to develop a robust, flexible, and readily transportable test which will, in pandemic, sporadic and outbreak settings, allow us to quickly and accurately and relatively cheaply identify highly pathogenic influenza strains and other pathogens that mimic or complicate influenza. The results of this study will allow us to know when infected people are longer contagious to others, whether they are getting better or worse, and how the virus affects those who are immunised against influenza or on drug therapy. This research is a partnership between Westmead Millennium Institute, University of Sydney and Corbett Research.

Title - Sensitive, rapid and accurate detection of the emergence of neuroaminidase inhibitor resistance by real time PCR and Rolling Circle Amplification

Researchers - Bin Wang, Nitin Saksena, Tony Cunningham, Dominic Dwyer

Amount Awarded - $118,000 over 12 months

The project will provide important diagnostic tools for the monitoring of the development and possible transmission of drug resistant influenza strains. As a vaccine for H5N1 will not be available in the foreseeable future, antiviral drugs are the only possible choice for prophylaxis and treatment. Understanding and monitoring the emergence of drug resistant strains during local spreading will be critical in managing an H5N1 influenza pandemic in Australia. Researchers are basing their techniques on a similar method they developed for the recent SARS outbreak.

Westmead Hospital is one of four designated World Health Organisation Centres for Influenza in Australia. Funding for this research has been provided by the National Health and Medical Research Council and was announced by Australian Minister for Health and Ageing The Hon Tony Abbott today.

Research Australia

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