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June 23, 2006

other tech: Scientists work for flu bioweapon defence

Scientists are discussing ways to better understand the flu and also how to prevent the possibility that terrorists could somehow modify flu as a bioweapon to make it even more lethal than it is already. Flu kills 250,000-500,000 people worldwide in an average year, and up to 1.5 million in pandemics (other than the 1918 pandemic which was made worse by World war I secrecy and conditions).

Among the highlights of this week's two-day symposium, hosted by the University of Rochester Center for Biodefense Immune Modeling, is a lecture by Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty, Ph.D., an expert on how flu spurs the immune system to defend itself against the infection. Doherty's technical talk on the roles of specific types of T-cells in influenza.

They will discuss exactly how flu invades the body, how the body responds, and how mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists are working to help understand the pathogenesis of flu infection. The group will also talk about the potential of flu to be intentionally modified for use as a lethal weapon more deadly than bird flu, and ways to prevent that from happening.

"How flu infects the body and how the body responds to a flu infection is not understood completely," said Wu. "Mathematical models will help guide flu experts to ask the right questions, so that we understand it more thoroughly than we do today. Understanding exactly what is happening should help scientists evaluate how the virus will respond to drugs designed to treat an infection."

Since flu is already a killer, the discussions will have an immediate application among scientists looking for ways to stop or better treat "natural" flu. The work also helps scientists like John Treanor, M.D., and David Topham, Ph.D., who are designing and testing new vaccines designed to prevent all types of flu, including bird flu. The University is recognized internationally as a leader in the testing of bird-flu vaccines.

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