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Feature

Terrence Tumpey

Terrence Tumpey examines reconstructed 1918 pandemic influenza virus.

Clipping the wings of bird flu

UMD graduate Terrence Tumpey helped recruit the 1918 pandemic flu

By Deane Morrison

From M, spring 2006

In the race to stave off a bird flu pandemic, researchers have turned to an unlikely ally: the Spanish flu virus that took 20 million to 50 million lives in 1918. Recently, researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C. sequenced the virus' genes from fragments of its genetic material taken from a victim buried since 1918 in the Alaskan permafrost. Scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City packaged the genes in a strand of DNA , and 1986 UMD graduate Terrence Tumpey, now a microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, used them to rescue the actual 1918 virus. The virus killed mice in a few days and caused widespread lung inflammation. The work yielded clues to how a future pandemic bird flu virus might function, which in turn will inform strategies to fight it.

I think that for the first time, we have a true avian pandemic virus," says Tumpey. "To develop vaccines and antivirals for pandemics, you need the actual virus."

"What we've learned through Terry's work will help us track the genetic changes in the H5N1 virus that will predict the likelihood that this virus will become the next pandemic strain," says Michael Osterholm, director of the University's Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP).

Tumpey and his colleagues also uncovered keys to the 1918 virus' virulence. For one thing, unlike ordinary flu viruses, the 1918 virus is capable of activating itself without help from enzymes inside the cells it invades. The 1918 virus has its own special versions of the molecule that performs the activation and the molecule that gets activated, and both contribute to its virulence. Also, the 1918 virus has a particularly efficient enzyme that assembles new viral genomes, which may allow the virus to replicate quickly in human bronchial cells.

"What we've learned through Terry's work will help us track the genetic changes in the H5N1 virus that will predict the likelihood that this virus will become the next pandemic strain," says Michael Osterholm, director of the University's Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP). It will aid the understanding of the genetic changes that made the 1918 virus not only a competent human-to-human virus, but one that caused high mortality among 15-34-year-olds, he added.

Osterholm is also involved in the University's preparations for a pandemic. Issues include how to deal with international students and travel, protect students living in dorms, and transmit vital information to the community.

"One of the major questions is how the University will handle employee absences," says Department of Emergency Management Director Terrence Cook. If a pandemic hits, planners want to have four or five backups for people in critical jobs, he says. Planning is still in the early stages, so Cook recommends regular visits to several Web sites: the Federal Emergency Management site, CIDRAP, and the Academic Health Center.

"We're working with University Relations to set up a hotline," says Cook. "Also, the Minnesota Department of Health usually has a hotline for health crises." Cook's department and the Academic Health Center will share their plans with the other University campuses, which will adapt them to their own situations, he says.

"The University is on the forefront of planning, but each person must take individual precautions to limit exposure to infected people and limit transmission of the virus," says Cook. "If we abdicate our personal responsibility, the system can't work."