Study shows pandemic flu binds to extra receptors in the lungs <em> - News Release</em>
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Imperial College London News Release
Under strict embargo for
Thursday 10 September 2009
10.00 British Summer Time
Pandemic swine flu can infect cells deeper in the lungs than seasonal flu can, according to a new study published today in Nature Biotechnology. The researchers, from Imperial College London, say this may explain why people infected with the pandemic strain of swine-origin H1N1 influenza are more likely to suffer more severe symptoms than those infected with the seasonal strain of H1N1. They also suggest that scientists should monitor the current pandemic H1N1 influenza virus for changes in the way it infects cells that could make infections more serious.
Influenza viruses infect cells by attaching to bead-like molecules on the outside of the cell, called receptors. Different viruses attach to different receptors, and if a virus cannot find its specific receptors, it cannot get into the cell. Once inside the cell, the virus uses the cell's machinery to make thousands more viruses, which then burst out of the cell and infect neighbouring ones, establishing an infection.
Seasonal influenza viruses attach to receptors found on cells in the nose, throat and upper airway, enabling them to infect a person's respiratory tract. Today's research, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, shows that pandemic H1N1 swine flu can also attach to a receptor found on cells deep inside the lungs, which can result in a more severe lung infection.
The pandemic influenza virus's ability to stick to the additional receptors may explain why the virus replicates and spreads between cells more quickly: if a flu virus can bind to more than one type of receptor, it can attach itself to a larger area of the respiratory tract, infecting more cells and causing a more serious infection.
Professor Ten Feizi, a corresponding author of today's paper from the Division of Medicine at Imperial College London, said: "Most people infected with swine-origin flu in the current pandemic have experienced relatively mild symptoms. However, some people have had more severe lung infections, which can be worse than those caused by seasonal flu. Our new research shows how the virus does this - by attaching to receptors mostly found on cells deep in the lungs. This is something seasonal flu cannot do."
The researchers found that pandemic H1N1 influenza bound more weakly to the receptors in the lungs than to those in the upper respiratory tract. This is why most people infected with the virus have experienced mild symptoms. However, the researchers are concerned that the virus could mutate to bind more strongly to these receptors.
"If the flu virus mutates in the future, it may attach to the receptors deep inside the lungs more strongly, and this could mean that more people would experience serious symptoms. We think scientists should be on the lookout for these kinds of changes in the virus so we can try to find ways of minimising the impact of such changes," added Professor Feizi.
The researchers compared the way seasonal and pandemic H1N1 flu viruses infect cells by identifying which receptors each virus binds to. To do this, the researchers used a glass surface with 86 different receptors attached to it, called a carbohydrate microarray. When viruses were added to the glass surface, they stuck to their specific receptors and the corresponding areas on the plate 'lit up'. This meant the researchers could see which receptors the different viruses attached to.
Pandemic H1N1 influenza could bind strongly to receptors called α2-6, which are found in the nose, throat and upper airway, and it could also attach more weakly to α2-3 receptors, which are found on cells deeper inside the lungs. However, seasonal H1N1 influenza could only attach to α2-6.
"Receptor binding determines how well a virus spreads between cells and causes an infection," said Professor Feizi. "Our new study adds to our understanding of how swine-origin influenza H1N1 virus is behaving in the current pandemic, and shows us changes we need to look out for."
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Notes to Editors:
1. "Receptor-binding specificity of pandemic influenza A (H1N1) 2009 virus determined by carbohydrate microarray" Nature Biotechnology, 10 September 2009. Corresponding author: Professor Ten Feizi, Imperial College London
(For a full list of authors, please see paper)
2. About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.
Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discover y of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackl e climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.
3. The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. www.wellcome.ac.uk
4. The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public's needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world. www.mrc.ac.uk
5. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training to tackle the challenges of the 21st Century. www.epsrc.ac.uk
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