Ducking the flu

Ducking the flu

Looking to nature's cutest birds for clues
February 1, 2002

As you lie in bed this winter fighting the great Canadian battle with the flu, there will be a moment when you abandon your usual compassion. After days of sneezing, fever, and prayer, you'll be happy to focus what remains of your energy on blame and revenge. The usual suspects? Your spouse. Your child. A co-worker. But what if the manhunt comes up empty? How will you find the guilty party?

Just look for a duck with a runny beak.

Sound crazy? Maybe to the average person. But biologists are very aware that these birds are among the most preferred and fertile breeding grounds for flu viruses. Unlike humans, ducks tend to put out a welcome mat for these viruses because they don't mount an immediate immune response when first attacked. That's what makes them such efficient long-term flu carriers.

And the news gets worse. The flu viruses that infect ducks can develop into powerful new variants that mutate, survive, and thrive-and then go on to become the viruses that are best able to infect humans. Invincible. Quiet and clever enemies that outwit our immune systems year after year. So although you may not actually see a duck blowing its beak, make no mistake; the virus threat is real.

How can we protect ourselves? Although a yearly flu shot may be our first line of defense, our best weapon may turn out to be Kathy Magor.

An Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta's Department of Biological Sciences, Magor is exploring the ways that flu viruses can interact with the cells that make up the body's immune system. These viruses sometimes trick cells into ignoring them, allowing diseases to develop unabated. When this happens, the individual becomes a carrier of the disease, spreading it to others. Kind of like what happens with the ducks.

Magor knows that the cycle of infection depends on the ability of new flu viruses to survive in animals-and people. Although a person's immune system can usually fight off infection if it recognizes the virus, a new unknown strain poses a problem. That's why Magor is studying the genetic weaknesses that make it possible for viruses to avoid detection in those animals-especially ducks.

What's the first step? Magor is cataloguing and sorting through thousands of the genes she'll need to explore the different ways influenza viruses can interact with the cells that make up the body's immune system. These are the genes that flu viruses might "switch off" in order to avoid being detected by the immune system. But to advance her research, Magor must turn the ducks into guinea pigs. If it all sounds like an opportunity to finally make the birds pay for their unwitting participation in our seasonal torture, she reminds us not to worry about the defenseless ducks. Since the research focuses on the molecular interactions within cells, she won't have to trouble the ducks for anything more than a tiny tissue sample. Determining the genetic composition of each sample, however, won't be so painless for Magor. It's a big and complicated job considering the number of possible interactions between viruses and proteins.

Magor says the key to keeping up with this large number of genetic interactions is two pieces of equipment that automatically analyze the DNA samples. One machine is a robotic system for organizing the many specimens of genetic material. The gene arrays can then be systematically analyzed for those genes turned on, or off, by viral infection. The other is a DNA sequencer that can specifically identify the particular genes that are being targeted by a virus. Acquired with support from the CFI, both pieces of equipment represent the latest technology in this field. They also allow Magor to process samples of genetic material in far greater volume-and faster than ever before.

And that's dramatically reducing the time it will take Magor to assemble her library of expressed genes. Instead of 10 years, she's looking at 10 months.

"Without this equipment, this experiment would be unfeasible since thousands of genes would have to be manipulated by hand," she says. "Our only alternative would be to send the DNA to an American company for arraying. Apart from being very expensive, that would also mean the company retains the rights to the collection."

Does Magor see any other benefits? Originally, she was thinking about the equipment in terms of only one project. Now she realizes the equipment will have other important applications, enabling Canadian researchers to study the genetic blueprint of a variety of plants and animals. She also believes the enhanced capability will become an incentive for hiring and retaining new faculty at the university, who would also greatly benefit from the high volume of genetic samples they could process in the course of their research.

Benefits

Faced with a new strain of the flu virus, how do public health officials determine an appropriate response?

Since they can't predict which strains will be making the rounds from year to year, developing and applying the right flu vaccine can be a hit-and-miss exercise. That's why researchers like Kathy Magor are beginning to look much more closely at how the flu is making its way through the carrier ducks. And trying to determine the best approach to conducting the research, and what equipment and materials she'll need to get the job done.

The research calls for libraries that contain the genomes of ducks and other such animals. But these libraries don't always exist. Without such databases of genetic information, researchers can't begin to study disease resistance in wild or domestic animals. And without that research, they can't examine the possibility of limiting the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

Magor's research is especially significant for a number of reasons. It's among the first attempts in Western Canada to address the problem of a lack of organized, accessible information-catalogued and contained in a database. It's also using technology that has the potential to spawn new commercial enterprises.

As the world of science moves forward, and a new and vigorous emphasis is placed on genomics research, libraries of genetic information promise to be the source of significant biotechnical applications in medicine and industry.

Partners

Among the major supporters of Kathy Magor's investment in infrastructure is the Alberta Network for Proteomics Innovation, a division of Alberta's Innovation Science Research Investment Program.

Magor's research has also been supported by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR). Established by the province in 1980, this foundation sponsors biomedical and health research at Alberta universities and affiliated institutions. The AHFMR upholds international standards of excellence for research, with the expectation of improved health and medical care for the province's population.

The AHFMR is also responsible for several important initiatives. This includes programs for training physicians to deliver better patient care, as well as research into the complex legal and ethical questions that are arising out of the medical application of genetics.