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Cracked: How humans get bird flu

An MIT team led by NRI Ram Sasisekharan finds how the virus jumps to humans, reports Neha Tara Mehta.

india Updated: Jan 07, 2008 02:35 IST
Neha Tara Mehta
Neha Tara Mehta
Hindustan Times

In a breakthrough that dramatically changes our understanding of bird flu, an MIT team led by an IISc Bangalore alumnus has discovered just how the bird flu virus jumps to humans. The finding could aid the development of a vaccine to combat a potential bird flu pandemic.

The seven-member team —which includes 6 NRIs — led by Ram Sasisekharan, the MIT Underwood Prescott Professor of Biological Engineering and Health Sciences and Technology, found that the ability of a bird flu virus to jump to humans depends on whether it can bind to a specifically-shaped receptor on our lung cells.

Recent bird flu outbreaks in humans have sent the scientific community in a flutter over what would happen if the bird flu virus mutated to a form that can pass from one human to another. Such an outbreak, it is feared, could claim more lives in its wake than the 1918 flu pandemic, that killed between 50-100 million worldwide.

“Based on what we know from the other pandemics, I would expect that the issue of a pandemic bird flu is about ‘when’ and not ‘if’,” Sasisekharan told Hindustan Times. “With our discovery, we have a better understanding of how flu infects humans, opening doors for potentially newer ways of monitoring and treating both bird and seasonal flu,” he adds. The team’s findings will be published in the January 6 issue of Nature Biotechnology.

The deadly bird flu virus infects humans depending on whether a particular protein on its surface can bind to sugar receptors on the human lung cells. So far, it was believed that a genetic switch led to the bird flu virus to jump to humans. But the MIT team found that to the virus, it is the shape of the sugar receptors on the human lung cells that matters. In order to infect humans, the team found, the virus must bind to the umbrella-shaped alpha 2-6 receptor, rather than its conical variant.

With this key finding, researchers can now focus work on bird flu viruses that have the ability of binding to the umbrella-shaped receptors, said Sasisekharan.