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Albany Medical College Receives $1.9 Million from NIH for Studies on Flu Complications
Story Number is : 021618102
Albany Medical Center

Albany Medical College researchers are investigating new ways to prevent severe illness and death due to influenza and the secondary bacterial infections that can occur in its wake.

Dennis W. Metzger, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbial Disease, and members of his lab have been attempting to discover ways to prevent severe lung inflammation caused by flu. Most flu-related deaths are caused by severe lung inflammation and secondary infections in the lungs, such as bacterial pneumonia.

Dr. Metzger has just received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to study the role of certain immune system components that are activated in the lungs during and following the flu.

The work builds upon his lab’s recent discovery of a new role for a subset of white blood cells, called type 2 innate lymphoid cells (ILC2s), in the lungs’ immune system. These cells are stimulated in the presence of a virus to maintain the healthy state of the lungs.

“They appear to be very important, but there is only limited information about these newly described cells, the regulation of these cells and their impact on protection against acute respiratory infections,” said Dr. Metzger.

Part of his work, he said, is understanding why ILC2s can sometimes fail to protect us, especially against flu. Dr. Metzger’s team published landmark research in 2008 that found virus-fighting interferon gamma, a component of the immune system, inadvertently shuts down normal defenses against bacteria when it is fighting the flu, leaving a window of vulnerability in which the body cannot fight against bacteria in the lungs.

“It turns out that interferon gamma shuts down ILC2s when we’re infected with the flu. That makes us susceptible to the deleterious effects of the flu,” said Dr. Metzger.

Dr. Metzger has shown in mouse models that ILC2 blood cells are able to protect the lungs when interferon gamma is inhibited. He said enhanced ILC2 activity in animals who don’t produce interferon gamma was accompanied by decreased lung tissue inflammation and increases in other beneficial immune mediators.

“The ultimate goal is to obtain an understanding of the processes responsible for protection against acute respiratory infection and to use that information to come up with new clinical approaches for prevention and treatment of influenza and associated secondary infections,” he said.

Dr. Metzger said the size of this grant reflects the fact that flu is an enormous public health concern and that secondary bacterial infections following influenza represent a major cause of mortality in humans. He said the disease takes a toll every year, and because flu can easily mutate and uses a very mobile, wild bird population as a natural host, there is always concern for pandemics.

“The last pandemic was in 2009, with ‘swine flu,’ which was a combination of bird, human and pig virus. It did cause death and severe disease, but fortunately it lost some of its potency as it infected the human population. However, 100 years ago this year, a similar virus caused the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed about four percent of the world’s population. Unfortunately, there is always concern about that happening again,” he said.

Approaches to understand more about the immune system and flu, as well as the quest to find better vaccines and ideally, a universal vaccine that would cover many flu strains at once for many years, are vitally important, he said.

Under Dr. Metzger’s leadership over the past 19 years, the Department of Immunology and Microbial Disease has developed into an internationally recognized infectious disease research group that has received more than $50 million in National Institutes of Health funding.

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