USD Researcher Explores Causes, Origins of Severe Influenza Strains

As the influenza virus spread rapidly across the country during the early months of 2013, infecting millions of people from coast to coast, a University of South Dakota researcher worked to help scientists predict the severity of lethal flu strains to better prepare for future outbreaks.

Victor Huber, Ph.D., assistant professor of Basic Biomedical Sciences at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, suspects that certain proteins on the surface of the virus contribute to secondary bacterial infections, which are a leading cause of death after influenza infection.

Huber’s research focuses on keeping track of changes in the flu virus so public health workers have an earlier warning that a more lethal strain may be developing.

“One potential reason for the severe secondary bacterial infections associated with these H3N2 influenza viruses could be the specific proteins that are expressed by these viruses,” said Huber, who earned his Ph.D. from the Medical College of Ohio in 2001. “In our lab, we are attempting to identify the viral proteins that contribute to severe secondary bacterial infections. Our goal is to ultimately be able to use surveillance of influenza viruses to predict the severity of these secondary bacterial infections, which would allow us to more rapidly identify when these viruses are present.”

USD Researcher Explores Causes, Origins of Severe Influenza Strains Huber’s research also includes developing vaccines that will protect against multiple viruses within a single influenza virus subtype, for example H3N2.

“We are specifically interested in developing vaccines that will protect against viruses that circulate within both humans and pigs so that we can limit the interspecies transmissions that are often associated with pandemic events,” he added.

Huber stressed that vaccination remains the best prevention against influenza and noted that the viruses that circulated recently demonstrated sensitivity to antiviral drugs like Tamiflu. Unfortunately, in a pandemic, there might not be enough medicine to treat everyone if a virus goes global.

“A situation like that has public health officials concerned because these supplies are being stretched to the point of some countries already accessing their emergency reserves,” he explained. “Since influenza viruses are contagious and can be spread through contact with droplets from infected people, additional ways to limit the spread of this virus include washing hands, covering mouths when sneezing or coughing, and staying home when you feel sick.”

Huber’s USD lab receives funding from the National Institute of Health, and his work is performed in collaboration with the St. Jude Center of Excellence in Influenza Research and Surveillance and South Dakota State University.

This story originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of South Dakotan M.D. magazine. Read the full issue.