Flu Fighters

A team of young Columbia scientists discovered the genetic origins of H1N1 swine flu this spring. Now they’re racing to determine its deadly potential.

by David J. Craig Published Fall 2009
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In the meantime, Rabadan is collaborating with Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity, which specializes in identifying unfamiliar microbes. The center is directed by Columbia epidemiologist W. Ian Lipkin, who identified the viruses that cause West Nile Fever and SARS. Lipkin’s lab will genetically sequence swine flu samples for the New York City Department of Health this fall; Rabadan’s lab then will analyze the sequences against large databases of influenza genomes.

“If we get a sample from somebody who’s extremely sick, we can look for genetic clues to explain why the virus has become especially virulent,” says Rabadan. “That could help government labs know what dangerous genetic changes to look for in the future.”

Rabadan also is monitoring how H1N1 swine flu is evolving in various parts of the world. This information could enable vaccine makers to tailor their drugs to different continents.

“The swine flu virus that’s circulating now in Europe is already quite different from the swine flu in South America, which is different from the version in New York, which is different from the version in California,” Rabadan says. “When vaccines finally get administered this winter, we’re going to see some fascinating data. Will the vaccine work in some places and not in others? Which viruses will be able to evade the vaccine? How will they do it? The numbers are going to come alive.”

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