Melbourne, Feb 2: Scientists are a step closer to cracking the deadly bird flu code following the development of a safe technique to study the virus by Australian researchers. The development, published this week in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition, will enable flu and drug specialists to study key surface proteins of the virus without fear of infection.
The breakthrough was made by Griffith University's Professor Mark von Itzstein and his team at the Institute for Glycomics on the Gold Coast, in collaboration with an international project team at Hong Kong University's Institut Pasteur led by Professor Malik Peiris, the Australian reported today. Risk is minimised through a method developed to insert the deadly bird flu's H5 protein into a harmless vehicle called a 'virus-like particle'. Prof von Itzstein said the reduced risk of spreading the infection would allow the virus to be studied in more laboratories around the world, particularly in countries not currently exposed to the disease.
''Importing, transporting and studying a highly-contagious live virus has always held some level of inherent risk for research staff, the wider community and agricultural economy,'' Prof von Itzstein said.
''To better interrogate a virus protein, researchers need to be able to observe and monitor the way it functions when associated with a virus particle,'' he said.
Prof von Itzstein, who helped to develop the influenza drug Relenza, said it was hoped the breakthrough could help to ''crack the code'' of the deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus.
The professor said the H5N1 virus had evolved to the stage where it could be transmitted from birds to humans, with evidence mounting that limited human-to-human transmission could also occur.