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Vaccine Expert Racing to Find Serum to Combat Swine Flu

India West, News Report, Michel W. Potts Posted: May 22, 2009

Rafi Ahmed, a vaccine expert at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his counterpart Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago are waiting for blood samples from Mexican flu victims from which they hope to make a serum that might offer some protection from the dangerous new H1N1 flu virus.

Once they receive the blood samples from the Centers for Disease Control, Ahmed and Wilson will isolate a type of immune system cells known as antibody-secreting plasma cells, which produce a surge of antibodies as part of an initial response to infection.

Using these cells, the two researchers will go to work on developing a new way to quickly make targeted, infection-fighting proteins called monoclonal antibodies to fight the virus.
We will also try to get some samples from within the United States, for sure, Ahmed told India-West.

The procedural protocol to acquire the sample was initiated by Ahmed and Wilson when the first outbreak of swine flu was announced, and could take another couple of weeks before final approval is granted.

Once the paperwork is in place, then we can contacts the appropriate physicians who are looking after the H1N1 swine flue patients and see if we can get consent to draw some blood, Ahmed said. They just dont want to give blood samples to any investigator out there.

Last year, in a Nature medical journal article, Ahmed and Wilson wrote that with only a few tablespoons of blood they could make monoclonal antibodies the specially engineered antibodies that attack a specific protein in as little as a month.

They speculated that the procedure might prove useful in an influenza pandemic by protecting health workers until a vaccine could be made. Although the antibody therapy would offer only temporary immunity, it could be available much more quickly than a vaccine, which is expected to take four to six months.

If we have the right antibody cells in our hands, we can do that in a couple of months or so, Ahmed told India-West. The value of the reagent is in terms of diagnosis but in some case could also be in immune therapy.

The media have been criticized lately for over-exaggerating the reports of a swine flu epidemic once the story broke, but Ahmed is not among the critics. I think it is something of concern, so it is not to be taken lightly, he said.

When a new influenza strain emerges, like this one, our bodies have not seen this virus before and we dont have much protection against it. So there is a concern that if this were to spread, it could be a real health problem.

Ahmed earned his undergraduate degree from Osmania University and his doctorate degree from Harvard University. He has served on numerous scientific advisory boards, including that of the Ministry of Science in India.

Elected as fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1999, Ahmed has published more than 140 articles and reviews in scientific journals. He is currently the principal investigator on two NIAID grants.
His vision is to make Atlanta, and Georgia, the worlds preeminent center for vaccine research and development. In his laboratory, a method of reinvigorating the immune system so that it continues to fight chronic infections holds great promise for treatment vaccines against cancers, hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases.

His research team discovered that a chronic viral infection can flip a switch on the surface of critically important immune system T cells and effectively shut them down, a process known as cell exhaustion. They were able to flip these T cells back to the on position, which enabled them to continue fighting infection. Strategies are now being perfected to stop chronic infections from flipping the switch in the first place.

The centers long-term goal is to develop an HIV vaccine that can be used worldwide to stop the AIDS pandemic.

Ahmed has also been part of many ventures of the Emory Vaccine Center in India. The center, along with the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, had launched the Joint ICGEB-Emory Vaccine Center in New Delhi last year.

During the launch, Ahmed said that the joint international research center would provide unique opportunities for collaborative research in vaccine development that go beyond what is available then.

We hope to recruit faculty based in New Delhi, and well be focusing on understanding immune responses and using that information to develop vaccines against malaria and tuberculosis, Ahmed said.

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As Swine Flu Spreads, So Does Backlash Against Mexico

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