Visitor enthrals with talk on influenza

Visitor enthrals with talk on influenza

Associate Professor Yee-Joo Tan obviously doesn’t let jetlag get her down.

Mere hours after a 12-hour flight and her body clock a full six hours ahead of local time, Tan, of the National University of Singapore and the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in Singapore, still mustered enough energy to deliver a lively seminar of her work on influenza. Tan was a guest of the Department of Medical Bioscience at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where she met up with UWC’s Professor Burtram Fielding, whom she worked alongside at the IMCB some years ago.

Speaking to a packed seminar room at UWC, Tan gave a potted introduction to the studies she and her colleagues in the Monoclonal Antibody Unit at the IMCB are conducting on bird flu, aka the H5N1 influenza A virus. More specifically, they hope to come up with a monoclonal antibody that can potentially be employed as a therapeutic drug.

These antibodies are so named because they are produced from identical clones of a single immune cell, and are designed to aid the body’s natural immune system. They do so by targeting and detecting those foreign bodies – such as the HIV virus and some cancer cells – that have the ability to elude the body’s defence systems, each monoclonal antibody calibrated for a specific foreign body.

In the case of H5N1, it is hoped that a monoclonal antibody can be developed that will seek out and bind to particles of the H5N1 virus, making it easier for the immune system to recognise the virus and trigger a defence response.

Although rare, there are concerns that H5N1 – with 630 confirmed human cases in some 15 countries that have caused 375 deaths (a mortality rate well over 50%) since 2003 – could still become a global health issue. “It is a threat because the virus is evolving,” said Tan. “The virus is not able to efficiently transmit from human to human now, but we think that this may happen one day.”

Tan was in Cape Town for the Options for the Control of Influenza VIII, a major conference that from 6 to 9 September brought together experts from across the world to speak on all aspects of influenza.