Biosafety committee reviews new influenza research

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By Roger Snodgrass

Two new biological research projects came before the Institutional Biosafety Committee Tuesday. Both involved influenza research at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Babs Marrone of the laboratory’s Bioscience Division said her application for a project on “Environmental Sampling for Endemic Influenza Strains” was made in anticipation of funding from a Congressionally approved project led by the University of California, Los Angeles, for a High Speed, High Volume Laboratory Network for Infectious Diseases.

The larger project is intended to improve national responsiveness and decision-making in the event of a bioterror attack or outbreak of infectious diseases. The project aims to provide hundreds of times more capability for analyzing biological samples than has been available up until now.

“We’re trying to be prepared for the kinds of samples that would be part of that network,” Marrone said.

Locally, Marrone proposes to begin working out procedures and processes for identifying environmental traces of influenza in RNA molecular signatures. She is not testing for avian flu, but rather for the genes that would signal the flue. If found, these samples would be moved to another lab.

Marrone said the premise is that water fowl is a reservoir for Type A influenza, the most virulent kinds of flu, and therefore one might expect to see low or non-pathogenic strains of the virus in water fowl like ducks or geese, in their feces or in the sediment of the pond or lakes they frequent.

“Ashley Pond would be a good place to scoop up a bottle of water, some sand and poop,” said Marrone, adding that it was not a testing site, but rather a place to work out how to go about testing on a larger scale in ways that would avoid interference with molecular assays.

But since Ashley Pond is not a big attraction on the migration route for waterfowl, her local project expects to other locations in the state, like the Rio Grande bosque environment that is a more common pathway for these kinds of birds.

“There are no known cases of high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI) in North America,” she said, echoing comments from the biosafety committee about the precautionary purpose of this project.

Another influenza project represented by Anu Chaudhary, a technical staff member in the Bioscience Division is not focused on the avian flu but on regular strains of flu that come and go from year to year and how the human immune system may be compromised by other kinds of infections, like streptococcus pneumoniae, a causitive agent of pneumonia.

“We’re trying to understand how our bodies respond to influenza,” she said.

The body’s first response to viral infection comes from the innate immune system that sends out defensive signals that something foreign is present that should be fought.

The virus in turn attempts to replicate in the host, as determined by increase in expression of virulence factors in the cell that has been “hijacked" by the virus.

“We are going to look at very specific proteins and expressions in the host cell,” Chaudhary said. “We do know there is a compromised host when there is a previous infection, but how it occurs and the synergy between viral-bacterial pathogens interplay that happens is what we want to study.”

The principal investigator for the project is Alan Perelson, a Senior Fellow in the lab’s Theoretical Biology and Biophysics Group, and a leading researcher in the field of viral immunology.

“We hope to build models based on data we produce from this application that should be applicable to a whole series of respiratory pathogens,” Chaudhary said.

The proposals were presented to the biosafety committee in one of the two public meetings that are held each year to review biological projects that may pose some risk to the health of laboratory employees or the public.

The committee also meets privately twice during the year. They make decisions on proposals and what conditions, additions or amendments may be required in closed sessions, where they may also discuss issues like privacy matters related to individual’s health or vaccines that are recommended as a precautionary measure in research.

The committee announced that Karen Hill of the Bioscience Division has been appointed to serve as the new chairman of the committee, replacing Mark MacInnes.

During the meeting, the committee was asked about the fate of the laboratory’s level 3 biosafety safety laboratory which has stood unused for several years and is at least 9 month’s overdue for release of a draft environmental impact statement.

The question was referred to Marrone, who said the document was “out of LANL and out of LASO,” (the local office of the National Nuclear Security Administration), and was in the hands of the Department of Energy in Washington. A release date had not yet been set, she said.