UT Microbiologist Part of New National Bird Flu Center

KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee microbiologist will play a key role in a new wave of research to help prepare the nation for the threat of a global flu pandemic.

UT professor Mark Sangster’s work fighting a potential pandemic flu has earned him a place in a $26 million research center funded by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID).

Sangster, an assistant professor of microbiology, will be part of the New York Influenza Center of Excellence (NYICE), a collaboration of the University of Rochester, Cornell University, UT and community partners. NYICE is one of six centers receiving $138 million in new flu research funding over seven years.

The research addresses one of the major challenges facing the nation as it prepares for a potential bird flu pandemic. Current vaccines do not provide long-term protection against bird flu, which differs from the traditional seasonal flu that affects the U.S. and other countries each year.

“We are very pleased that Dr. Sangster is part of this important team, which is addressing a significant societal question,” said Bruce Bursten, dean of UT’s College of Arts and Sciences. “This sort of scientific activity, which bridges basic research and human health, is important for Tennessee and the nation.”

Sangster’s work will examine how the immune system responds to the flu vaccine and how best to optimize that response. He’ll look specifically at how a specific type of white blood cell known as a B cell responds to both the normal influenza virus and the emerging avian flu.

“It would be wonderful to target the virus in such a way that we don’t have to change the vaccine each year,” said Sangster, referring to the difficulty in creating new flu vaccines to adapt to the virus’ annual changes. He has researched the influenza virus for 14 years.

When a person is vaccinated, B cells are able to “remember” how they fought the small amount of the virus that’s included in the vaccine. How long that memory lasts determines how effective the vaccine is. According to Sangster, the two major goals of the research are to help extend that B cell “memory” and also to understand how to improve the response of B cells to many different types of the influenza virus.

“The avian flu has a totally different surface component,” said Sangster. “It’s something that humans have not yet been exposed to.”

He also noted that the avian flu has shown characteristics that cause it to bring about a more severe infection than the annual flu.

Sangster will receive about $335,000 in funding over a six-year period for his work. In addition, he’ll collaborate closely with colleagues at the other participating institutions, who will assist in providing some of the cells Sangster will use to conduct his research.

The largest flu epidemic on record, which occurred in 1918, killed 50 million people worldwide, and flu remains one of the deadliest preventable diseases in the world. According to information from NIAID, in recent years, bird flu strains have been spread by migrating birds, further increasing the risk that the disease could be spread to and between humans.


Contacts:

Mark Sangster (965-974-4028, msangste@utk.edu)
Jay Mayfield (865-974-9409, jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu)