MIT study finds, the current Swine Flu outbreak in India may be more dangerous

MIT-Flu-India-1203New Delhi/Washington (ISJ) ? As health authorities in India brave to deal with the spread of Swine Flu (H1N1), which has already taken a toll of about 1,500 people and affected about 26,500, a study by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests, the latest virus strain might be more dangerous than previously circulating strains of H1N1 influenza.

The study contradicts Indian health officials? stand, the strain has not changed from the version of H1N1 that has been circulating around the world ever since its first outbreak in 2009. Indian experts, whom the federal Health Ministry has consulted, feels ?the treatment protocol, vaccination policy are broadly in the right direction?.

The finding of the MIT study appeared in the latest issue of Cell Host & Microbe, calls for better surveillance to track the outbreak and to help scientists to determine how to respond to this influenza variant, as there is little scientific data available about it.

?We are really caught between a rock and a hard place, with little information and a lot of misinformation,? says Ram Sasisekharan, the Alfred H. Caspary Professor of Biological Engineering at MIT and the main author of the study. ?When you do real-time surveillance, get organised, and deposit these sequences, then you can come up with a better strategy to respond to the virus.?

In the past two years, genetic sequence information of the flu-virus protein hemagglutinin from only two influenza strains from India has been deposited into publicly available influenza databases, making it difficult to determine exactly which strain is causing the new outbreak and how it differs from previous strains. However, those two strains yielded enough information to warrant concern, says Sasisekharan, who is also a member of MIT?s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Sasisekharan and Kannan Tharakaraman, a research scientist in MIT?s Department of Biological Engineering, compared the genetic sequences of those two strains to the strain of H1N1 that emerged in 2009 and killed more than 18,000 people worldwide till 2012.

The researchers found the recent Indian strains carry new mutations in the hemagglutinin protein that are known to make the virus more virulent. Hemagglutinin binds to glycan receptors found on the surface of respiratory cells and the strength of the binding determines how effectively the virus can infect those cells. One of the new mutations is in an amino acid position called D225, which has been linked with increased disease severity. Another mutation, in the T200A position, allows hemagglutinin to bind more strongly to glycan receptors, making the virus more infectious.

Sasisekharan points out more surveillance is needed to determine whether these mutations are present in the strain that is causing the current outbreak, which is most prevalent in Gujarat and Rajasthan and has infected more than 20,000 people so far.

?We need to understand the pathology and the severity, rather than simply relying on anecdotal information,? said Sasisekharan.

Sources: MIT/PIB

Image courtesy: US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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