7 October 2021

Developing an early warning system to predict fatal respiratory viral infection outcomes.

As the world has discovered with COVID-19, respiratory viral infections can have a devastating impact on global health in the absence of a vaccine to provide immunity.

A biomarker that can predict fatal respiratory viral infection outcomes could provide an early warning system that would help clinicians manage and care for infected patients more effectively. 

A team at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute – a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital) in the laboratory of Professor Katherine Kedzierska is investigating the role of an enzyme they first discovered was elevated in patients during the 2013 H7N9 influenza outbreak in China.

The team will now study how this enzyme affects viral infection and impairs immune responses to drive severe respiratory viral disease.            

Research leader Dr Brendon Chua said that during the 2013 H7N9 influenza outbreak patients who died from infection had a low immune response and expressed a gene for this enzyme at strikingly high levels. 

“We believe that this enzyme could be a useful predictor of fatal outcomes from severe influenza,” Dr Chua said.

“We have established some very special tools and models to study the role of this enzyme during severe influenza and how it affects our immune response. It is really important we understand what drives severe disease and deaths from infection.There is enormous translational potential if we can understand how this enzyme functions to drive infection and to develop its use as a biomarker that predicts severe disease.

“Influenza is still the cause of up to around 600,000 deaths each year globally and millions of people are hospitalised, putting an enormous burden on health care systems – and that is despite having a vaccine.

“We need more tools to look after patients in outbreaks for which we don’t have a vaccine.”

Dr Chua’s research is focused on understanding innate and adaptive immunity against viral respiratory infections and how they can be harnessed to develop approaches that can translate into protection.

A biomarker for severe and fatal influenza would be extremely useful in caring for patients in future outbreaks, particularly in managing severe and fatal viral infections when vaccines are not available.

This research is supported by a $866, 807 NHMRC Ideas Grant over four years.