The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, has selected Penn Medicine as one of five sites across the country to serve as a Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response (CEIRR), with the goal of better understanding influenza viruses around the world along with learning about the viral strains that have the potential to cause pandemics. Penn Medicine has been awarded nearly $7 million in first-year funding. The contract is expected to be supported for six additional years.
The CEIRR contracts are a major funding mechanism for flu research in the Unites States. Scott Hensley, PhD, a professor of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, will serve as Penn’s CEIRR program director.
“This is an opportunity for Penn Medicine to become a major hub for influenza research,” Hensley said. “This contract will allow us to lead cutting-edge studies that have the potential to improve the seasonal flu vaccine that millions of people receive every year, and to be better prepared for the next flu pandemic.”
NIAID launched the first network of this kind in 2007, known then as Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS), awarding contracts every seven years for 14 years. All CEIRR contracts have four main focus areas: longitudinal human influenza studies, influenza surveillance, risk assessment and response research, pre-pandemic and pandemic emergency response, and pathogenesis and immune response research.
Investigators in the CEIRR network will conduct domestic and international influenza surveillance studies with an emphasis on rapid characterization of viruses that have the potential to cause pandemics. Researchers will collect hundreds of samples from humans, pigs, and birds across the world each year. The CEIRR’s longitudinal studies will seek out how human responses to flu evolve over time. Over the next seven years, the network will conduct a series of studies to better understand influenza virus evolution, how influenza viruses jump from animals to humans, and how humans mount protective immune responses against these viruses. With better scientific knowledge of these aspects, experts will be able to more accurately decide which of the thousands of flu strains should go into the annual flu shot, and which ones have the potential to cause the next pandemic.
“Penn Medicine has been studying influenza for more than 100 years and is especially well-positioned to launch this center because of the expertise of top researchers, like Scott Hensley and his team, who have already been deeply focused on influenza viruses,” said Jonathan A. Epstein, MD, Senior Vice President, Executive Vice Dean, and Chief Scientific Officer, Penn Medicine. “This funding will allow researchers at Penn Medicine to advance knowledge and limit spread of the seasonal flu.”
The Penn-CEIRR’s Pre-Pandemic and Pandemic Emergency Response Project will test viral strains with pandemic potential that are found in the surveillance projects, as well as viral strains identified at other CEIRR sites. With each viral strain with pandemic potential, researchers will complete large screens to assess human population immunity and other factors that would determine how easily the strain could spread. They plan to identify genetic mutations associated with virulence and transmission, and determine how susceptible these viral strains are to currently available therapies.
“In the event of a flu pandemic, our network will rapidly characterize the new virus and we will determine how the human immune system responds to the new virus,” Hensley said. “We are also well positioned to respond to pandemics caused by other respiratory viruses like the current coronavirus pandemic.”
Other researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who will be heavily involved in the CEIRR include E. John Wherry, PhD, chair of the department of Systems Pharmacology and Translational Therapeutics and director of the Penn Institute of Immunology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Michael R. Betts, PhD, a professor of Microbiology and program leader in the Penn Institute of Immunology, and Sara Cherry, PhD, a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.