NIH Selects UTEP Professor to Fight the Flu

By Daniel Perez
Posted: 9/12/11

In bed with a severe sore throat, body aches and a high temperature, German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., had had enough of the flu. Much like Scarlett O’Hara vowing to never go hungry again, he decided – between chills – to focus his future research on finding a better way to combat influenza.

In the seven years since then, he was hired by The University of Texas at El Paso and earned one grant from the American Heart Association and two from the National Institutes of Health to help him achieve his goal. The latest is a four-year, $1.1 million award announced in early September that would allow him and his team of UTEP student researchers to battle influenza at the cellular level.

Rosas-Acosta, assistant professor of biological sciences, said his work is important because 34,000 people die annually from flu complications in the United States. While the common flu poses dangers to people with asthma, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and seniors age 65 and older, new strains such as the bird flu or the H1N1 (swine) flu could be just as deadly to the general population.

The 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which spread globally in about three months, resulted in more than 8,900 deaths around the country between April 2009 and April 2010, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“What I want to do is find new molecules that will inhibit the virus from multiplying, and act as a more effective treatment,” he said. “The current medicines target the viral components, but the drawback is that the strains change rapidly and become resistant to those drugs. My team will target the cellular components needed for viral growth. This is a totally different strategy.”

The work Rosas-Acosta has done in this field is highly significant because it uncovers how the flu virus interacts with human cells, said Van Wilson, Ph.D., vice dean for research and graduate studies and professor of microbial and molecular pathogenesis at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Bryan, Texas.

“Because of the rapid changes in the influenza virus each year, and the possible mixing between avian, swine, and human influenza, there is a continual risk of serious epidemic outbreaks annually,” said Wilson, who has collaborated with Rosas-Acosta since 2002. “Therefore, any new therapeutic approaches for humans and/or animals could be incredibly important for helping to control or prevent outbreaks.”

He added that the NIH grant is the most recent recognition of the work done by the UTEP researcher who has established himself as an authority in his field. “It is exactly the quality of science for which UTEP and all institutions should be striving,” he said.

The UTEP research team is made up of five undergraduates, three master’s students and three doctoral students,  including Andres Santos, who has worked under Rosas-Acosta for three years. Santos, who earned his bachelor’s in science in December 2008 from UTEP, praised his professor for his ability to make molecular virology understandable and to instill passion in his students.

“The whole purpose of our research is to innovate a genetic therapy that would be effective against every strain of influenza,” said Santos, who expects to receive his Ph.D. in biological sciences next summer. His future plans include medical school and clinical research in neurology.

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