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UC Davis to assist in federal study of flus with pandemic potential

By Dave Jones on April 6, 2007 in University

UC Davis this week was named a partner in a new $18.5 million national research center that will study influenza viruses with pandemic potential, such as avian influenza H5N1, commonly referred to as bird flu.

The Center for Rapid Influenza Surveillance and Research, or CRISAR, is one of six new centers that were announced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

The new center's overall objective is to expand the federal government's early-detection program for influenza, and to help it reduce the chances of a deadly influenza outbreak around the world, as well as reduce the effects of common, "seasonal" strains of influenza.

Walter Boyce, a research veterinarian and director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, will lead the UC Davis branch of CRISAR. Boyce and Scott Layne of UCLA, a public health physician and professor at UCLA's School of Public Health, have been named co-directors and co-principal investigators of the new center.

"UC Davis and UCLA have joined together to tackle one of the most important public health threats of our time," Boyce said.

The Wildlife Health Center is a program of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. UC Davis is one of the world's top veterinary medical schools and a leader in the study of diseases transmitted from animals to people, called zoonoses.

"This new center is an acknowledgment that the health of people, domestic animals, and wildlife are inextricably entwined, and that veterinary medicine and human medicine really are 'one medicine,' " said Bennie Osburn, dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Public health experts say that learning exactly how the influenza virus is changing as it moves around the globe is essential to knowing when it might develop the ability to move quickly between people, giving it pandemic potential, and knowing how to fight it with vaccines and antiviral drugs.

Wildlife collection, testing

UC Davis' chief role in the new surveillance and research center will be to coordinate the collection and testing of tens of thousands of samples from wildlife, especially wild birds, on both the U.S. and Asian sides of the Pacific Ocean.

UC Davis will also collect samples, in collaboration with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

UC Davis will sample wildlife in the Pacific Flyway from California to Alaska. UA Fairbanks will sam-ple in Alaska, Far East Russia and Japan. The Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York City, will sample in Cambodia, Laos and Mongolia.

All samples will be tested at UC Davis and UA Fairbanks for the presence of influenza viruses. Positive samples will be sent to Layne's group at UCLA for precise identification based on genetic makeup.

Layne will direct the High Speed High Volume Laboratory Network for Infectious Diseases, which is being created to quickly analyze and process high quantities of biological samples. It will have the unique capability to analyze influenza genes from thousands of viruses each year, far more quickly and in far greater numbers than any other program.

The final CRISAR collaborator, Los Alamos National Laboratory, will provide technological support to UCLA's high-speed laboratory and create dipstick test devices for identifying positive flu samples in the field.

Reduce and manage threat

"Clearly it's important to know if and when strains of flu like Asian H5N1 make it to the U.S. But we can't stop there," Boyce said. "We need to know how viruses are changing, and whether they are becoming more or less of a threat.

"This new national influenza surveillance and research center gives us that ability. CRISAR and the other NIH centers will work together to reduce and manage the threat of influenza."

Besides the California-based center, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chose the following institutions for the new research effort:

  • St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis.
  • University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
  • Emory University, Atlanta.
  • Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City.
  • University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,