Dr. Amir Shams, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, has worked on groundbreaking flu research for nearly three years and secured a grant through the health system.
also is seeking funds for the continuation of his
project, including one from the National Institutes of Health
team are trying to understand the mechanisms of immunomodulators -- chemicals found in the body
that regulate the immune system -- and how they enhance the defense against the flu virus.
Animals that were given a boost of immunomodulators have survived as they developed immunity against lethal doses of the flu.
said researchers at UTHSCT
are the first group to use this approach successfully with animal models and are looking to implement it in human clinical trials.
About one to three weeks after contracting the flu virus, a patient dies or survives, Dr. Shams
Immunomodulators can be introduced to trigger the body's innate, or natural, immunity, which is an immediate defense to disease.
"Even getting vaccines does not protect 100 percent of the people that receive the vaccine," Dr. Shams
"We have to look at other ways to boost the body's innate immune response.
With innate immunity, it protects the body from anything the body has not had exposure to previously.
In the case of the innate immune system, it protects against everything indiscriminately."
Immunomodulators would be given in controlled doses and would not generate side effects, Dr. Shams
There is a large population that has a compromised immune system, including those under age 2 or over age 65, as well as people with cancer, HIV, or other chronic illnesses.
Immunomodulators would be essential to these people, Dr. Shams
H1N1, DRIFTS AND SHIFTS
The onset of a new virus strain compels researchers and health officials to investigate thoroughly.
said being overly cautious about the recent outbreak ensures there will be no more deadly pandemics -- such as the one in 1918, which killed millions of people around the world and more than 500,000 in the U.S. alone.
"We have a choice between overreaction and catastrophe," he
Unlike today, during the 1918 pandemic, neither the federal government nor health officials shut down large gatherings or educated the public about the flu.
"Why we have much less fatalities is that we are more informed and people are treated in early stages with antiviral medicines," Dr. Shams
An H1N1 strain of the 1918 pandemic was so lethal that it struck otherwise healthy people ages 15 to 34, like the swine flu is doing today.
In 2005, CDC scientists resurrected the 1918 flu to further study why it was so lethal.
explained that changes in the virus's genetic material keep scientists on their toes.
When a virus mutates, it is called an antigenic drift, thus the need to change flu vaccine formulas each year.
Every once in a while, there is a large mutation in the virus, called an antigenic shift, in which two or more viruses swap genetic information.
said the swine flu is a result of an antigenic shift.
"When we have antigenic shift a new virus is being generated," he
The vaccine industry is not a big business because there are not many financial incentives for manufacturers to develop vaccines, Dr. Shams
Compared to other pharmaceutical products, the cost of vaccines remains very low.
"The liability is too high and the income is too low," he
is uncertain on the impact his
research will have on the world, but he
"Even one life is a lot to save," he
In the meantime, a scientist's work never ends, he
"The whole issue of vaccines for influenza is like moving targets for scientists," he
Dr. Amir Shams
has been studying influenza strains with a grant provided by The University of Texas Health Medical Center
for nearly three years, well before the H1N1 influenza strain that has recently made headlines across the world.