Swine Flu Breakthrough

02 August 2013

You could say that expertise in the Flu virus is part of the Medical Research Council’s DNA. 80 years ago, in 1933, researchers at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research first identified the flu virus. Now, collaborative research between researchers at the University of Oxford and Beijing Capital Medical University uncovered why some people are in more danger from the H1N1 swine flu. It’s an important breakthrough that may help in the development of a vaccine and at the very least, can help guide health strategies in the event of a pandemic. 

As Dr Tao Dong, of the MRC Human Immunology at Oxford University and lead author of the study explains, the findings are the result of a deep, long term relationship. ‘We started collaborating about 10 years ago,’ says Dr Dong, ‘we trained a PhD student Dr.YongHong Zhang in Oxford. He finished his PhD in 2009 and went back to Beijing You’an Hospital and he is now Director of Scientific Research in the Hospital and collaborator with our laboratory.’

The research started by investigating HIV, then as Dr Dong explains, ‘it expanded into ‘hepatitis, flu – which is definitely a big topic – and potentially other emerging diseases.’ As Dr Dong was studying the anti-viral T-Cell in H1N12009 flu pandemics, Professor Paul Kellam at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge and Professor Peter Openshaw at Imperial College London, discovered a variant of the IFITM3 gene – rs12252. While the IFITM3 gene is a protein that can inhibit the severity of Flu, rs12252 makes people more likely to have a severe reaction to the flu virus.

The variant is rare in the UK, but explains Dr Dong, it is much more common in China. ‘I read the paper the day after it was published. We have this patient cohort in China and also explored the 1000genomes website looking at the frequency for different populations. We realised that Chinese people had a higher frequency. My Chinese colleagues did a really good job, we analysed the data and the result was surprising but really exciting and makes sense.’ 

Dr Dong, working with co-authors of the paper Dr. YongHong Zhang, Professor Ning Li, Professor Andrew McMichael and their team, have already developed a diagnostic kit for this genotype. ‘Knowing people with this genotype will be of benefit, if they are treated early, even if they do not have any symptoms. And for any future vaccine, in the case of a pandemic, such people should be vaccinated as a priority.’