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TGen helps test for swine flu in Arizona

Techniques honed from post-9/11 FBI anthrax letters investigation; 'TGen North' also investigating Valley Fever; viruses and bacteria

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - April 30, 2009 - The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) is assisting state and federal authorities in a coordinated effort to prevent a swine flu pandemic.

The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) is sending samples of suspected Arizona cases of swine flu to TGen, which has some of the world's most advanced disease testing methods.

TGen's Pathogen Genomics Division (TGen North) in Flagstaff on Thursday not only confirmed three additional Arizona isolates of swine flu - bringing the state's total to four - but TGen scientists also found that the virus has begun to pick up genetic mutations, according to David Engelthaler, Director of Programs and Operations for TGen North.

The first three Arizona isolates tested by TGen are genetically similar to those found in California and Texas, but different from those found in New York and Ohio, said Engelthaler, a former Arizona State Epidemiologist and former Arizona Biodefense Coordinator.

Continued analysis by TGen, a non-profit research institute, eventually could track how the flu is moving and how it is mutating, and monitor its susceptibility to anti-viral drugs, Engelthaler said. The first three samples tested by TGen all appear to be susceptible to Tamiflu, he said.

"Flu viruses mutate pretty quickly. Hopefully we can help the public health officials track what's going on," said Engelthaler, whose labs are expecting to receive additional samples to test from ADHS in the coming days. The same samples are also being sent to the CDC for testing.

12 News - KPNX-TV, Channel 12, in Phoenix - reports on TGen's role in testing for swine flu

TGen's work in producing disease-detecting genotyping tools has potential national and global significance in tracking potential drug-resistant mutations of swine flu, Engelthaler said.

"We've been working on influenza the last couple of years; developing tools and assays to be able to identify different strains of influenza, to quantify the amounts of virus in different samples, and also to look for anti-viral resistance markers," Engelthaler said.

In addition to assisting ADHS, TGen is working with a pharmaceutical company to help discover ways to track and prevent anti-viral drug resistance. Currently, strains of influenza eventually become resistant to anti-viral drugs, Engelthaler said.

"We've maintained and developed a really strong relationship with the state Health Department, and we've helped them with other disease outbreaks in the past. We have all this cutting-edge technology, so we want to bring that to bear on these public health emergencies," he said.

"All of that is fortuitous because now we can immediately step up and help them, not only with the very specific tools that are needed to identify swine flu, but also by providing them with information about anti-viral resistance and the ability to see how that (swine flu virus) might change," Engelthaler said.

TGen has worked with ADHS to develop genomic tests for such diseases as Valley Fever - molecular epidemiology - allowing officials to track disease outbreaks and potentially identify their sources.

"At ADHS, our primary concern is to quickly identify these cases to take the appropriate public health measures. Our partnership with TGen is a crucial part in responding quickly to any potential cases," said Will Humble, Interim Director of ADHS.

Other diseases on which TGen is working include many of the top 20 biothreat agents, including anthrax and Ebola virus, as well as hospital-related and community-acquired bacterial infectious threats, including MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and strep pneumo (Streptococcus pneumoniae), the most common cause of lobar pneumonia. TGen also plans to work on plague.

Much of TGen's expertise can be traced to Dr. Paul Keim, Director of TGen North, and one of the world's foremost authorities on infectious diseases.

Keim, also a Regents Professor of Biology at Northern Arizona University, assisted the FBI in recent years in investigating the post-9/11 anthrax letters. Beginning on Sept. 18, 2001, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others. The primary suspect was not publicly identified until 2008.

"He (Keim) revolutionized how we look at microbial forensics," said Dr. Jeffrey Trent, TGen's President and Research Director. "There's a dividend from that acquired knowledge, which we are bringing to public health and clinical medicine. By applying this knowledge to diseases and outbreaks, we can expedite the identification of their causes, and hopefully benefit the patient."

TGen's "real time" technology can target very specific mutations in the RNA genetic material of viruses, and retrieve the results in a matter of hours.

"It allows for very rapid results. It takes the knowledge and ability to know what to look for and how to build an assay, or test, around that one mutation. This is something that we have essentially perfected in the past few years," Engelthaler said.

TGen also can test samples of suspected disease agents for as many as 1,000 different mutations at once, to track where a disease may have come from and where it might spread.

TGen's tests results for the three suspected Arizona swine flu cases are expected to be available soon. Test results will be released by ADHS.

"We have been providing a support role (for ADHS), and they have provided us with ideas about public health needs and how to develop tests and analyses," said Engelthaler, who is in constant contact with state health officials.

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About TGen
The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) is a Phoenix-based non-profit organization dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research with life changing results. Research at TGen is focused on helping patients with diseases such as cancer, neurological disorders and diabetes. TGen is on the cutting edge of translational research where investigators are able to unravel the genetic components of common and complex diseases. Working with collaborators in the scientific and medical communities, TGen believes it can make a substantial contribution to the efficiency and effectiveness of the translational process. TGen is affiliated with the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. TGen North shares many of its faculty with Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. For more information, visit: www.tgen.org.

Press Contact:
Steve Yozwiak
TGen Senior Science Writer
602-343-8704
[email protected]

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