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Media Contact: Holly Korschun
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02 April 2007
NIH Awards Emory $32.8 Million to Create Influenza Center of Excellence
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Emory University School of Medicine a $32.8 million contract over seven years to establish a Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. The award, from the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), includes a subcontract to the University of Georgia. The Emory center is one of six national influenza centers announced today by the NIH.

The center's principal investigator and executive director is Richard Compans, PhD, Emory professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Walter Orenstein, MD, professor of medicine and associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, will serve as associate director for operations management and initiatives. Ralph Tripp, PhD, professor and Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) chair of animal health vaccine develop and GRA eminent scholar at the University of Georgia, will serve as associate director for research.

In addition to Emory, the other influenza centers are nationally located at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital; University of California at Los Angeles; University of Minnesota; Mount Sinai School of Medicine; and University of Rochester.

The Emory center will conduct studies to determine how influenza viruses adapt to new hosts and are transmitted between different hosts, and will analyze human immune responses to influenza vaccination and infection. The researchers will examine how human genes might be "silenced" to decrease or eliminate flu infections; identify new targets for antiviral medicines; study how immune memory influences the human response to new influenza strains; and evaluate flu transmission between patients and physicians in the hospital emergency room setting. Emory will also offer a training program for postdoctoral fellows and veterinarians interested in influenza and other research, performed in a biosafety level 3 laboratory.

"Emory has a very successful and long term history of research and clinical excellence in infectious diseases," says Dr. Compans. "We look forward to joining this important national effort in advancing research in influenza prevention and surveillance."

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.

Four research projects will be central to the mission of Emory's influenza center:

  • Project 1: The role of the influenza virus hemagglutinin (HA) protein in interspecies transmission and pathogenicity David Steinhauer, PhD, lead investigator This study will examine functional activities of the proteins of avian influenza viruses that have been circulating extensively and will determine features important for viral entry into cells. Richard Cummings, PhD, chair of Emory's Department of Biochemistry, will analyze how normal and mutant viral proteins bind to specific carbohydrates.
  • Project 2: Determinants of transmission of avian influenza viruses and mutant viruses Ralph Tripp, PhD, lead investigator UGA investigators, including Drs. Mark Tompkins and Jeff Hogan, will characterize viruses that are efficiently transmitted to other species with respect to their pathogenicity, immune responses to viral infection, and susceptibility to disease intervention strategies.
  • Project 3: Immune memory effects on response to influenza infection Joshy Jacob, PhD, lead investigator Investigators will study the mechanism of "original antigenic sin," in which the immune system responds to an influenza str a in from an earlier exposur e rather than to a new strain. This blind spot of the immune system exacerbates the severity of new influenza infections, and a better understanding of this phenomenon has important implications for vaccination.
  • Project 4: Characterization of the immune response to influenza vaccines in humans Rafi Ahmed, PhD, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and director, Emory Vaccine Center, lead investigator Investigators, including Drs. John Altman, Bali Pulendran, Kenneth Kokko, and Abdul Jabbar, will seek to understand the precise nature of vaccine-induced immunity in humans, including the type, strength and magnitude of anti-viral immune responses in vaccinated humans and distinct immune responses to different types of influenza vaccine.

Additional Components of the center include:

  • Data Management: Vicki Hertzberg, PhD, professor in the Department of Biostatistics in Emory's Rollins School of Public Health, will lead a data management team to cope with the enormous amount of data and subsequent statistical analysis generated by the center's research. She will also manage a data-sharing plan ensuring broad dissemination of the center's research results, with the goal of advancing influenza research and developing therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics.
  • Training/Career Development: The Emory center will support a Training/Career Development program focusing on basic research in influenza viral pathogenesis and immunology with the goal of producing highly qualified independent investigators who will make significant contributions to influenza research. One component of the Training/Career Development Program, based at the UGA School of Veterinary Medicine, is designed to attract doctors of veterinary medicine to careers investigating influenza infection in animals.

Pilot Projects:

  • David Shafer, PhD, and Ralph Tripp, PhD, University of Georgia, lead investigators, will focus on identifying cellular genes required for influenza infection but not essential for the host cell.
  • Douglas Lowery, MD, lead investigator, will use radiofrequency detection to measure patient/hospital staff contact. Coupled with other clinical data, these assessments will help give reliable estimates of the interactions between staff and patients in emergency departments with respect to both time and distance. Studies will take place in the Emergency Department of Emory Crawford Long Hospital.

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