Faculty-student team researches avian influenza in Puerto Rican wild birds; results could mean prevention of pandemic influenza

Dr. Edu B. Suarez-Martinez and Noried M. De Jesus Velazquez

While avian influenza viruses rarely cause death in wild birds, scientists are concerned that the avian influenza A (H5N1) virus (AIV) could change to the point that it would be able to infect humans and spread easily from one person to another, causing a catastrophic worldwide pandemic event.

But Edu B. Suarez-Martinez, Ph.D., hopes to lessen this probability through her research of Puerto Rican wild, migratory and non-migratory birds. Her studies will focus on the surveillance for AIV and the genetic makeup of these viruses.

Suarez-Martinez said the real-world applications of the research she carried out during her summer internship are very important.

“Knowing the distribution of human and avian influenza virus receptors in many avian species is fundamental to understanding how avian viruses can adapt to humans causing a massive infection event: a pandemic,” she said.

Suarez-Martinez, an associate professor of molecular biology at the University of Puerto Rico in Ponce (UPR-P), spent the summer of 2007 in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Summer Research Team Program for Minority Serving Institutions, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

To conduct her DHS research, Suarez-Martinez and UPR-P undergraduate student Noried M. De Jesus Velazquez conducted their 10-week internship in the laboratory of Blanca Lupiani, Ph.D., at the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. This DHS Center of Excellence works to protect America from animal diseases that threaten public health and economic stability.

Suarez-Martinez applied for the summer program because she found the concept of sharing the research experience with De Jesus Velazquez to be intriguing. And although Suarez-Martinez is well versed in many types of research procedures, the summer program gave her further experience in various laboratory techniques that she usually does not use.

In addition to her AIV research, Suarez-Martinez is collaborating with various colleagues and agencies in the design of a surveillance system for Puerto Rico, which will be aligned with the National Network for AIV infections that helps report and monitor outbreaks of the virus. She also wants to establish a molecular biology diagnostic laboratory at UPR-P that can serve as a training center for its minority students.

As for the DHS program, Suarez-Martinez advises anyone who might be interested in participating to “just jump at it! There is no chance to lose, just a win-win situation. This has been a great experience from both a professional and cultural manner.”