Ralph Tripp

Ralph Tripp is one of the University of Georgia's researchers who will be teaming up with researchers from Emory University to study the swine influenza virus.

Researching the swine influenza virus will be the focus of a $3.6 million contract Emory University and the University of Georgia have received from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The contract is for seven years, with potential funding up to $26.7 million, and renews a previous contract that sought to better understand the mechanisms of the influenza virus, which was also lasted seven years, said Ralph Tripp, professor in the department of infectious diseases, Georgia Research Alliance chair of animal health vaccine development and project leader at UGA.

Researchers will try to better comprehend swine’s role as “mixing vessels” for new strains and new isolates and examine the pandemic potential of influenza viruses, he said.

“We’re really focusing on expanding from what we learned in our first seven years,” Tripp said.

They will continue to look at different sequences for viruses they believe are important in the transmission of influenza, an important cause in the disease in humans, with the goal being to develop strategies for combating pandemic and epidemic viruses.

“We’re trying to develop a strategy and a counter measure for flu for humans, but there’s a dual benefit,” he said. “If we can figure out how to protect swine from swine influenza and other forms of that, than mixing of these viruses doesn’t occur in swine and the epidemics and pandemics, their potentials are greatly reduced, if not eliminated. So the dual benefit is protecting the food source as well as humans.”

The researchers will work with swine industry companies like Smithfield Foods, a really important step, as NIH has never had access to the swine industry before, which has been a “major caveat” in advancing the science, Tripp said.

He said the reason this collaboration hasn’t happened sooner has been reluctance on the part of swine industry companies due to fears over the negative connotations consumers associate with the phrase "swine flu." However, he said he thinks the industry reached a point where financial hits from swine deaths and weight loss due to the influenza virus made this a smart business decision.

“At the end of the day, business is about making money, so clearly if they can improve the margin in their swine sales by controlling flu, that’s a good thing,” Tripp said. “It’s smart marketing, smart science, it’s a good idea.”

UGA will work with Emory on the research, whose strength is in human immunology. Its researchers will be looking at making universal antibodies to the flu and how influenza viruses buy into different sugars on cells.

“We’re lucky in the state of Georgia that we have two very strong research institutions that both study influenza,” said Dan Dlugolenski, a Ph.D. student in the department of infectious diseases. “Just working with them and having the Emory professors so close has provided advantages that other networks don’t have.”

Emory and UGA are both part of the NIAID Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS) network, which Dlugolenski said has allowed him great exposure to large number of professionals in his field of influenza.

“Having these centers in place is a critical component in world health,” Tripp said.

He said a big reason UGA was awarded the contract with Emory is because it has the Animal Health Research Center, while Emory lacks these animal facilities that are key for the research.

“Why UGA has done so well is because we have really good animal facilities,” Tripp said. “I think that’s something that’s going to drive a lot of this long-term.”

This work is important to protecting human health, Tripp said, because if there weren’t centers working on the influenza virus, there would be no vaccines, no antivirals, no tests – scientists wouldn’t know how to predict transmission of viruses.

“It’s really, really important to have these things because the human public expect these things now,” Tripp said. “And without this funding it doesn’t happen.”