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The search for a swine flu vaccine

By Leigh Frillici — Texas Cable Network, May 6, 2009

HOUSTON—Researchers from the Greater Houston area are helping the CDC come up with a swine flu vaccine.

Search for swine flu vaccine
May 5, 2009
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Some of those experts are working at UTMB. Their weapons in the flu fight are the lab's high-tech machines.

The researchers use them to analyze swine flu samples sent by the federal government.

"Once we have those samples identified, then we can work on vaccines," Scientific Manager Ronald Veselenak said.

One of the machines, called the T5000, identifies strains of the virus and categorizes the changes and mutations that could be the key in creating an effective vaccine.

It may soon lighten the load of other overburdened local labs, now harboring hundreds of samples awaiting tests.

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"We're trying to make that available to the health authorities in Texas to help speed strain identification. The current method is to send it back to the CDC in Atlanta," Galveston National Laboratory Professor Tom Ksiazek said.

If UTMB's state-of-the-art machines can help man the front lines of the fight, then the people can test the vaccines in the trenches.

Those tests are usually done on lab animals.

But right now, in the Rice University Bioengineering Department, Professor Michael Deem can already test the effectiveness of potential swine flu vaccines through a computerized model he developed.

His work has caught the eye of the government.

"We will use this model to evaluate potential vaccines made from these and other mutants that may arise and we will look for a vaccine that will cover as large a number as possible of the different mutants," Deem said.

Then, just a short walk away at the Texas Medical Center, tests can get under way at the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit at Baylor College of Medicine.

Lab workers at testing sites like Baylor's will be involved in the final stages of the fight against swine flu.

"We were not asked to gear up, we just know that's expected of our unit and our relationship with the federal government, so we automatically moved into that mode," Dr. Robert Couch of Baylor College of Medicine said.

"That mode" is getting ready for human trials of a swine flu vaccine.

"It won't be too long, we're assuming, before we're asked to start to begin the trials of candidate vaccines, with the idea of a target, if it's needed, to begin to use it and make it available in early fall," Couch said.

That "if" is a big factor. Back in the 70s, the government set out on an advertising campaign to inoculate more than 200 million Americans against the swine flu.

But the flu fizzled, and so did the need for nationwide vaccinations.

It's possible this year's swine flu will fade into history, too.

But as people around the world continue to worry, experts in Houston are making sure we're well armed – just in case.

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