Close on the heels of the bird flu outbreak in Bengal, an Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team led by Indian-born Ram Sasisekharan has explained just how bird flu spread to humans in 1918, leading to a pandemic that killed 50-100 million people worldwide.
Scientists fear the emergence of a new bird flu strain that could jump easily from birds to humans — potentially unleashing a pandemic.
Sasisekharan’s team reports in the February 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that two mutations in the 1918 bird flu virus played a key role in transmitting it to humans.
The mutations developed on a surface molecule called hemagglutinin (HA), allowing it to infect humans, by binding tightly to the human upper respiratory tract.
“These two HA mutations dramatically change the virus’s ability to bind with receptors on the human respiratory tract,” Ram Sasisekharan, an IISc alumnus and currently MIT’s Underwood Prescott Professor of Biological Engineering and Health Sciences and Technology, told HT.
Last month, Sasisekharan’s team had reported in Nature Biotechnology that flu viruses infect humans only if they match the shape of umbrella-shaped sugar receptors found on the human respiratory tract.
In the current study, funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, six out of the seven researchers are NRIs.
The findings could aid researchers in monitoring mutations in the bird flu strains in India. “We now know what to look for. The latest findings will aid the monitoring of the evolution of the bird flu virus leading to its human adaptation,” says Sasisekharan.