If the world were to experience a replay of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people, it could very likely involve a jump of ever-evolving avian flu strains from wild birds to domestic poultry to humans.
Despite studies suggesting that just a few mutations in the genes of the bird flu virus could generate a new variant able to spread easily among humans, scientists still have an incomplete picture of how that might happen and of the best way to prevent it.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center postdoctoral researcher Dr. Louise Moncla has been awarded a three-year fellowship from the Baltimore-based Life Sciences Research Foundation to trace the evolutionary changes that have taken place in a worrisome strain of bird flu known as H5N1.
The LSRF seeks out talented young researchers and then lines up support from a variety of sources to fund their research. In Moncla’s case, the funding will be provided by the Open Philanthropy Project, which was started by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna. Pandemic preparedness is one of the research priorities of the San Francisco-based organization.
Notoriously lethal to birds, H5N1 first appeared in 1996 in farmed geese in China. It made its way to poultry markets in Hong Kong, where it jumped to humans, killing six of 18, but it has been unable to spread easily from person to person. Since then, the virus has established itself among wild birds and poultry in at least six Asian countries and Egypt. In scattered outbreaks, it has killed more than 450 people.
Moncla works in the laboratory of Dr. Trevor Bedford, who uses computational and statistical methods to track the evolution and spread of viruses. She has been analyzing samples of H5N1 viruses from poultry and humans in Cambodia, and her grant will provide an opportunity to amass and analyze genomic data from similar sources to identify subtle genetic changes in the virus and track how they affect its spread.
“We will be asking a series of questions about how cross-species transmission occurs,” Moncla said. A virologist and computational biologist, she will align genetic data gathered from wild aquatic birds such as ducks, geese and gulls with information taken from infected poultry and humans. She will look at how this information correlates with geographic and environmental data such as bird migration patterns and weather.
Her survey will also try to pinpoint certain genetic markers that correlate with transmission among birds and between birds and humans.
“There are certain mutations that we know make these viruses more likely to replicate in people, but these are based on animal studies. Nobody has ever evaluated whether they are good predictive markers for natural evolution,” she said.
In addition to tracking how flu virus strains evolve within these bird and human hosts, she hopes to find evidence that could point to how husbandry practices might limit cross-species transmission — such as housing chickens indoors during seasons when infected wild birds might be stopping over in rice paddies during their long migratory journeys.
“The goal will be to develop a list of factors that increase the risk of H5N1 in a particular geographic area,” Moncla said.
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.