Topic: Avian influenza transmission - How does the virus jump from bird to human?
Expert: Daniel Perez, Ph.D., assistant professor of virology, University of Maryland, College Park (Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine)
Research: Trying to determine how the influenza virus makes the jump from one species to another. With plasmid-based reverse genetics, Perez and his team clone the virus, then manipulate the DNA to change it. "We are currently using this system to map specific amino acid residues involved in interspecies transmission of H9N2 and H5N1 influenza viruses, which are believed to have the greatest potential to become pandemic viruses. I look at changes in the amino acids that might be important in transmission." Perez's research is funded by NIH.
On the potential for human-human transmission of avian influenza: "It has been good for us that avian influenza viruses have difficulties transmitting from human to human, but in my opinion, it's just a matter of time. There have been more incidents of avian influenza going to humans in recent years. Through different agricultural practices, humans have altered the ecosystem of many animal species, including poultry and swine, which have resulted in the creation of optimal conditions for the emergence of novel influenza virus strains. With worldwide poultry and swine production going up, the chances for another influenza pandemic appear imminent."
Credentials: Dr. Perez was involved in the development of the first plasmid-based reverse genetics system for influenza virus. In March 2003, Dr Perez was a member of a St. Jude Children's Research Hospital laboratory team that rapidly developed an H5N1 vaccine by reverse genetics. The vaccine was prepared using the samples of H5N1 obtained from a patient in Hong Kong who died after being infected with the avian virus. The team mixed two genes from H5N1 with six genes from a second virus (A/PR8/34)[H1N1]). H1N1 is a rapidly growing "master" strain of virus commonly used to make vaccines.
Other: Dr. Perez is fluent in Spanish and English.