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UW-Madison to launch new influenza research institute

March 15, 2006 By Terry Devitt

In an effort to bolster what is already recognized as one of the world’s top programs of influenza research, UW–Madison announced today plans to launch a new Institute for Influenza Viral Research.

The $9 million initiative includes the development of 20,000 square feet of new research space for flu research, including specialized lab facilities, in existing space at University Research Park.

The new program, according to Associate Dean for Research Policy William Mellon, builds on a UW–Madison research strength, and is essential as influenza — especially emerging strains of avian influenza — poses a significant public-health challenge.

"The capacity for flu viruses to evolve, change their genetic makeup and spread literally outpaces our level of research," Mellon says. "The targets for vaccines and drugs within flu viruses are continually altered. We need to understand how and why this occurs, and this program will permit a critical mass of scientists to carry out sophisticated and vital research toward that goal."

The new institute will house the research program of UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine researcher Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of pathobiological sciences. It will include laboratory and support space, and limited office space. Included in the lab space are specialized facilities for Biosafety Level 2, Level 3 and Level 3-Agriculture, which denote enhanced safety features. Such space is required in order to work safely with influenza viruses; the university already operates several such facilities on campus.

Kawaoka and his group are recognized worldwide as leaders in the study of influenza, one of the world’s most important human and animal diseases. The World Health Organization recently designated Kawaoka’s program as "one of the world’s preeminent influenza projects."

Studies conducted by Kawaoka’s group during the last five years have sharpened the ability of vaccine manufacturers and drug companies to react quickly to flu virus as new strains emerge.

In particular, a 1999 study that revealed methods for making flu virus using a technique known as "reverse genetics," and a 2006 discovery that showed how flu viruses organize their genetic material to create infectious particles, are helping fuel a global effort to prepare for a possible avian influenza pandemic. Methods devised in these studies are now widely used to produce vaccines for new strains of flu more quickly, and to reveal new molecular targets for antiviral drugs.

New space is needed for the program as funding for programs of influenza research is growing rapidly and the specialized space required to conduct such research on the UW–Madison campus is constrained.

Kawaoka’s research portfolio now encompasses an estimated $7 million in existing grants and contracts covering several years. The new institute, which will house as many as 28 current and new personnel, will further enhance the university’s ability to attract research support and top-flight researchers, according to James Tracy, UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine associate dean for research.

"Professor Kawaoka’s research program has outgrown the available specialized research space," Tracy notes. "Moreover, the campus plans to add three new faculty positions in the area of viral vaccine research over the next couple of years."

The new UW–Madison initiative is occurring against a backdrop of heightened concern over influenza, especially avian or "bird" flu. That strain, known as H5N1, has spread rapidly in birds from Asia to Western Europe and Africa. The virus has been transmitted from infected poultry to people in some instances, and, if the virus evolves to become easily communicable from person to person, a global pandemic is feared.

"There is general agreement that there will be another human influenza pandemic," Tracy says. "The question is not whether, but when."

The University Research Park setting for the new institute, which is being funded through a partnership between UW–Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, was chosen because space was readily available and construction there can proceed at a far faster pace than can construction on the UW–Madison campus. The new facility is expected to be completed by fall 2007.

Accelerating the pace of research into the most basic properties of the flu virus is a priority, Mellon says, because it is one of society’s best defenses against a virus that may soon pose a significant risk to humans.

"Many individuals are at risk. We were alarmed by the virus’s spread throughout Asia," Mellon explains. "No one thought it would spread as rapidly as it has beyond Asia."

Because influenza viruses are constantly changing their genetic makeup to infect animals and humans and fool the immune system, vaccines and drugs must constantly be changed to keep up with them. New vaccines must be developed every few years for newly emerged strains of flu virus, and the shifting makeup of the virus can render antiviral drugs ineffective.

"Understanding more about how the virus mutates and how virus structure is related to pathogenicity will help provide clues to better treatments and vaccines," Tracy says.

The new facility will be constructed according to standards established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and will undergo routine federal inspection for safety and security.

"The new facility is being designed to state-of-the-art building and safety standards," says Tracy. "Moreover, it must meet a high federal standard for safety and security before any work can be conducted there."