As part of a new series of posts from CVR staff and students about their work, CVR final year PhD student Alice Coburn, writes about her research in the Murcia lab on influenza virus cross-species transmission. If you would like more information on the work of the Murcia lab on influenza, check out these publications on comparing horse and canine influenza strains or looking at how influenza evolves during an infection in horses. Contagious Thinking serves to communicate the science of the CVR and provide important training and exposure opportunities for our staff and students like this. If you would like to write a short article about your research, please contact a member of the communications team.
What do you work on?
I work on the Influenza A virus as a part of the Murcia lab at the CVR. Influenza A virus has an eight-segmented negative sense RNA genome surrounded by a layer of matrix protein and a lipid envelope which contains the external antigens.
I look for markers of adaptation of avian influenza (“bird flu”) viruses infecting mammals. I use Equine Influenza Virus (EIV) as a model, as influenza was introduced to horses from birds and now infects horses around the world. I hope to find patterns in EIV genes that could be used to predict e.g. which avian influenza strains could infect people. This would let us know which strains were the biggest threat and help us be prepared for any outbreaks. It takes six months to make a vaccine for a new influenza strain, so the more advance warning we can get, the better.
How do you work on it?
I look at the differences in EIVs from the 1960’s, when an avian influenza first infected horses, compared to EIVs collected recently which have had a chance to become well adapted to infection horses. I see how well the viruses replicate in cells from different species, such as chicken, horse and human, and try to find the genetic differences responsible for this change.
Why do you do work on it?
Avian influenza viruses killed 30 people in 2016, however the potential for harm is much greater. The relatively mild “swine flu” pandemic in 2009 killed nearly 500 people in the UK, (up to 200,000 worldwide) and cost the UK economy an estimated £16 million. An avian influenza virus able to transmit easily between people has the potential to be much more serious. If we can predict these outbreaks in advance using molecular markers for high-risk strains, we would be able to limit the spread of infection and save lives. Fortunately, the H5N8 bird flu strains found in the UK since December last year do not have any of the human-risk markers that we have identified so far!
PhD Aim: To characterize molecular determinants of EIV adaptation to equine infection.
Thank you to Alice for contributing as part of a short series of articles on Contagious Thinking. Look out for more articles from new contributors in the very near future. If you would like to write a short article about your research, please contact a member of the communications team.