Hong Kong and Dutch scientists make breakthrough in battle against global flu outbreaks
Team, led by an expert from the University of Hong Kong, says it has developed a technique to predict if virus will spread to humans
A team of Hong Kong and Dutch scientists say they have developed a cutting-edge technique to help predict whether an emerging virus will have outbreak potential in humans, an important advance in the battle against the next flu pandemic.
The group, led by University of Hong Kong flu expert Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, created the “mature airway organoid culture system” – or so-called organs in a dish – which mimic the respiratory tract from the nose to the bronchus using adult stem cells from lung tissue.
A US provisional patent application has been filed for the platform and the findings will be published on Tuesday morning in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said Yuen, who is Henry Fok professor and chair professor in infectious diseases at HKU’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine.
The team included Dr Jane Zhou Jie, a research assistant professor at HKU’s department of microbiology, and Professor Hans Clevers’ Hubrecht Institute laboratory in the Netherlands.
Yuen said no reliable model existed to predict which new animal virus – bird flu or swine flu – would spread to humans.
The team used adult stem cells harvested from lung tissue in their work.
Zhou said the scientists came up with the concept of the respiratory organoid and “then we tested influenza virus infections”.
Four types of emerging flu viruses were tested.
“This airway organoid is found to be easily infected by the 2013 H7N9 virus that spread to humans in Zhejiang, but not so much by the co-circulating poultry H7N2 virus,” Yuen said.
The city’s Centre for Health Protection said there had been 1,567 human cases of H7N9 as of June 2. The mortality rate was higher than 35 per cent, the team said.
The organoid can also be easily infected by the human swine flu H1N1 virus in the 2009 pandemic but not so much by the classic swine flu H1N1 virus with no genetic markers for human adaptation, the team said.
“This is an important advance that may allow us to reliably predict which new virus may have outbreak potential in humans,” Yuen said.
He also said it would take three weeks to know the infectivity of an emerging flu virus using the new technique, which would take a year or two to implement.
Newly emerging flu viruses can wipe out swathes of the population as humans would not have immunity against them.
“This novel strain of swine-derived H1N1 pandemic virus has infected a large proportion of the human population, establishing sustained human-to-human transmission and circulating globally as a seasonal virus strain since then,” the team wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Former World Health Organisation director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun had warned that bird flu H7N9 could trigger the next flu pandemic, especially as it did not make chickens sick but was deadly for humans.