Scientists identify novel avian flu strain in Taiwan

Health officials identified a novel strain of influenza A in a 20-year-old woman in Taiwan and fear the virus could infect others, according to a recent report from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The officials fear the virus, which is similar in structure to the H7N9 avian flu, could spread to other humans. Last year, the H7N9 avian flu virus infected 139 people in China, killing 45.

Researchers with the University of Illinois at Chicago are seeking ways to prevent infection with emerging avian flu strains. Lijun Rong, an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at UIC, uses a high-throughput screening protocol to test the virus-blocking potential of hundreds of drugs and agents.

Rong removes proteins on the surface of viruses like SARS, Ebola, Marburg and avian influenza and attaches them to less dangerous viruses. Using this method, Rong is able to safely test agents that block cell infection.

"One-at-a-time drug testing is no longer a viable method for finding drugs against these emerging viruses," Rong said. "Because they can mutate so rapidly, we need a fast way to test lots of potential drugs at once to keep up. It is an arms race."

Michael Caffrey, an associate professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry at UIC, recently published a paper in PLOS One about a food preservative compound that prevented H7N9 from entering cells. According to the study, adding the preservative to the feed of birds could keep the viral load down among the birds and prevent the virus from infecting humans.