A&M Research on Flu Will Change Government Response to Pandemics

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COLLEGE STATION Each year, thousands of people die from the flu. Thousands more are hospitalized because of the virus. What happens when those numbers start climbing higher?

Research happening at Texas A&M could help protect us from the next pandemic and save millions of lives.

"We had a pandemic in 2009," said Dr. Scott Lillibridge. H's the Chief Scientist at the Texas A&M Center for Innovation and Advanced Development and Manufacturing.

"Every year we are continuing to provide surveillance. We're looking at H5N1, H7N9. There's a number of strains that we have our eye on, on a worldwide basis," continued Lillibridge.

It's the nightmare scenarios of movie plots. Millions of people all over the world sick and no way to quickly treat them. In the movie Contagion, an unknown virus spreads quickly with no known vaccine.

In real life though, researchers at Texas A&M are working on combating a more common enemy - the flu.

"With respect to the population we're seeing the most impact for hospitalization, it is typically in the 18-64 years of age range, right now," said Lillibridge.

"That's a little unusual because we normally expect the flu to impact people 65 and above. We're keeping our eye on that. We think the flu vaccine this year is very well targeted," he continued. Lillibridge is one of many at the center who have a deep background in infectious diseases. His job is to oversee a new way of mass producing flu vaccines.

"In the past we had to gather eggs. It was a slow process. It took about 6 or 7 months. The new process we grow vaccines in individual cells, mammalian cells, and we're able to complete up to 50 million doses in four months or less," said Lillibridge.

2009 was the last year a flu pandemic swept the globe. Between 20,000 and 275,000 people died. The front lines of flu many times are emergency rooms. It's here that the first signs of a flu pandemic will show up. So, how do we know when the next pandemic will hit? And could we be seeing those signs now?

"I would compare this year to the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic, where we had a significant number of flu cases and a significant number of sick patients," said Dr. Aaron Buzzard with St. Joseph's Hospital in Bryan. He says he's seen a significant increase in flu cases this year.

"The unusual part is that we've seen it in younger folks this year, like in 2009. And for reason's that I can't explain, this virus, H1N1, seems to prefer younger people and gives them more serious illness than a traditional influenza virus," said Buzzard.

Even though flu season peaks nationally in February, reported cases are dropping in Brazos County. Still, the number of people getting sick this season is high.

"It's important to realize that Texas A&M wants to fundamentally transform how in the world we do vaccine manufacturing. We have the processes here to do it better, faster, cheaper and will give us the ability and the tools to transform public health on a worldwide basis," said Lillibridge, as he stood in front of a learning lab at the National Center for Therapeutics Manufacturing.

The process of producing vaccines in cells, not eggs, means more vaccines get to the public faster. But you might ask, why bother, when we can't predict the next flu virus or pandemic?

"Our limitations in response for a public health emergency has always been in our ability to manufacture vaccines and antidotes," said Lillibridge.

"We're pretty good at identifying threats and warning people. We were just pretty bad about having the antidotes and vaccines available. This is the final end of that that corrects that deficiency," he continued.

One that will be put to the test during the next health crisis.

Doctor Lillibridge at the Center of Innovation says the partnership with Texas A&M and private vaccine company GlaxoSmithKline gives students the opportunity to get real-world experience in the bio-medical industry. That exposure means a workforce is growing that is already familiar with the new vaccine process.