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UW-Madison receives $9.5 million Gates Foundation grant

November 19, 2009 By Tania Banak

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has received a five-year, $9.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify virus mutations that would serve as early warnings of potential pandemic influenza viruses.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, is principal investigator on the project, which brings together an international team of scientists in a quest for a more reliable method of identifying influenza threats to human health.

“Early intervention is critical to the control of influenza virus outbreaks,” Kawaoka says. “But in order to intervene, we rely on early recognition of the pandemic potential of newly emerging influenza viruses.”

To facilitate early recognition, Kawaoka and his colleagues will look for mutations in viral proteins that allow avian influenza viruses to bind to human receptors or facilitate efficient replication in human cells.

Avian viruses don’t generally infect human or other mammalian hosts. But every once in a while, a mutation occurs that allows avian viruses to adapt to human cells. That is generally when a pandemic occurs.

By identifying mutations that might allow this to occur, Kawaoka and his colleagues hope they can develop an early warning system that will make it easier to predict the pandemic potential of influenza viruses.

“The improved ability to predict whether a virus has pandemic potential would be an invaluable asset to the global community,” Kawaoka says. “Millions of lives might be saved if intervention methods — such as social distancing, antiviral compound distribution, and vaccine development/production — could be implemented early.”