MIT researchers uncovered a critical difference between the flu viruses that infect birds and humans. This discovery could help scientists monitor the evolution of avian flu strains and develop vaccines against a deadly flu pandemic.

The researchers found that a virus's ability to infect humans depends on whether it can bind to one specific shape of receptor on the surface of human respiratory cells.

In addition to helping researchers develop a better way to track the evolution of avian flu that leads to human adaptation, these findings will aid in developing more effective strategies for seasonal flu, which still is a leading cause of death.

Shown here is a colorized transmission electron micrograph of avian influenza A (H5N1) viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green).

- Anne Trafton, MIT

Jessica Jones  |  Associate Editor