15 Mar Flu institute a booster shot for Wisconsin biotech stature
Wisconsin’s reputation as a biotechnology leader was greatly enhanced today with the announcement that an Institute for Influenza Viral Research will be established by UW-Madison.
That’s the assessment of Mark Bugher, director of University Research Park, where the research institute will be located. Bugher said the institute, which is designed to accelerate the pace of research into the most basic properties of the flu virus, and help prepare for a possible pandemic caused by the avian flu, might have the same impact on the state’s image as stem cell research.
Alex Azar II, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was in Madison for the announcement. Azar said a vaccine exists with some effectiveness against avian flu in humans, but production is slow because the nation has neglected immunization infrastructure. He estimated the U.S. could produce 14 million doses of avian flu vaccine a year – but only if the production of vaccines for normal, seasonal flu were suspended, leading to an unknown number of deaths.
Azar said the federal government is distributing $100 million to the states for pandemic preparedness, of which Wisconsin is getting $1.8 million. States will receive a further $250 million later this year.
The new research center is being funded separately, with $6 million coming from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and a further $3 million from federal grants.
• More on WTN: IT critical in pandemic response, but many are not paying attention
UW-Madison professor of virology Yoshihiro Kawaoka will direct the 20,000-square-foot institute, which will be housed in a remodeled building. His research into flu virus mutations has been lauded by the World Health Organization as one of the world’s pre-eminent influenza projects.
Kawaoka was out of the country and unavailable for comment, but Bugher said the avian flu vaccine is “up there with stem cells” in terms of breakthrough technology. “The avian flu is being talked about almost every day in the international news,” noted Bugher, who is working to develop a second University Research Park campus on Madison’s Far West side. “If Wisconsin can become the centerpiece for avian flu research, and scientist Yoshi Kawaoka is certainly an acknowledged worldwide leader in that effort, I think it’s a big deal.”
Several of Kawaoka’s discoveries on vaccine development have been patented by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which is partially funding the institute. His technology will be refined in larger, more specialized laboratory space, and UW-Madison plans to add three new faculty positions in the area of viral vaccine research. Up to 28 people would be employed at the institute.
News of the institute, which should open by the fall of 2007, also makes it more likely that the state will hang on to the highly regarded Kawaoka, which Bugher acknowledged is “part of the strategy.”
James Tracy, associate dean for research at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, sees an additional benefit in commercial spin-offs. “The technology that Yoshi has devised will facilitate the production of new vaccines,” Tracy said, “and his basic research could facilitate the discovery of new drugs of the ilk of Tamiflu.”
Kawaoka is among a group of researchers that reported the existence of a Vietnamese girl with a strain of the H5N1 avian flu virus that is resistant to Tamiflu. As a result, the sole reliance on the drug, which is being stockpiled around the globe, has been called into question.
One of the challenges with influenza-A viruses is they mutate as they go through different organisms, either of the same species or when they jump species, which increases the degree of difficulty of making new flu vaccines. The work of Kawaoka’s research group in the area of reverse genetics has enabled drug manufacturers to more quickly produce vaccines for new strains, and identify new molecular targets for anti-viral drugs. According to UW-Madison, a more recent discovery indicates how flu viruses organize their genetic material to create infectious particles.
Kawaoka’s lab is studying the molecular basis of the high virulence of the H5N1 avian flu virus in mammals, and how it was directly transmitted from birds to humans. “His research is basically on the virus, itself, how it causes pathogenicity, and how it enters cells, and that provides the clues to the technology on how to make vaccines and drugs,” Tracy said.
Want to hear more about pandemic flu, and how technology will be called on to help deal with it? It’s one topic of the Digital Healthcare Conference in Madison on May 3-4. Visit the site now.