Lab Canada

Avian flu genome sequence provides important new information

Vancouver, BC – May 28, 2004 – The BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre (GSC), the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and the Animal Health Centre, Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (AHC) have worked together to complete the sequence of the genome of the Influenza A virus implicated in the ongoing avian influenza outbreak in BC. Genome information should help to better understand how and why this virus has had such a devastating effect on infected poultry in the Fraser Valley.

Working together, the three organizations discovered that this strain is highly pathogenic likely due to an alteration in one of the viral genes of the H7N3 Avian Influenza A virus. Dr Caroline Astell, project leader at the GSC, says this is the first time this particular alteration has been discovered, and it may be responsible for apparent increased virulence of this virus.

“Each organization was able to bring different strengths to the table,” explains Dr Sean Byrne, AHC. “The GSC brought high-level sequencing and bioinformatics capabilities, BCCDC provided human isolates and human influenza expertise, and information around the changes that may occur, and the Animal Health Centre was involved in the initial isolation and characterization of the different forms of the avian influenza virus involved in this outbreak.”

Though the disease is highly virulent in birds, says Dr Robert Brunham, director of medical and academic affairs at BCCDC, it is important for people not to be overly concerned for their own health. The genome sequencing demonstrated that this is entirely a bird isolate, and contains no human influenza A genes at this time.

“The collaborative project highlights the unique relationship between the GSC, BCCDC, and the AHC which is imperative to further development and understanding around new and emergent diseases,” he says.

The next step, in collaboration with the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, is to learn more about the biologic properties of the genetic alteration in the protein that characterizes the new virus. This will help lead to a better understanding of the process that allows some influenza viruses to develop into superpathogens.

The BC Cancer Agency and BCCDC have worked together previously on other public health issues, most notably the sequencing of the SARS coronavirus in 2003. It once again demonstrates that the use of genomics transgresses many human and animal health issues, and provides us greater information and confidence to meet similar challenges in the future.