Researchers ferret out a flu clue

Research that provides a new understanding as to why ferrets are similar to humans is set to have major implications for the development of novel drugs and treatment strategies.

Published today in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, the research is a collaboration between Professor Michael Jennings and other researchers from the Institute for Glycomics, Griffith University and collaborators at the University of Queensland and the University of Adelaide.

The team has shown for the first time that ferrets share a mutation that was previously thought to be unique to humans, among the mammals. This helps to explain why the molecular characteristics of ferrets so uniquely mimic human susceptibility, severity and transmission of influenza A virus strains.

Professor Michael Jennings, Deputy Director of the Institute for Glycomics, says these findings open up a completely novel approach to tackling human diseases from influenza through to cancer.

“For over 80 years we’ve known that ferrets are uniquely susceptible to human influenza A virus, but the precise reason was unknown,” Professor Jennings said.

“We have shown that ferrets have a mutation in a gene required to make a crucial sugar called sialic acid. Most animals can make two types of sialic acid. Ferrets, like humans can make only one. Different flu strains have preferences for the type of sialic acid they bind to cause infection. Because ferrets can only make the human form of this sugar, they are naturally “humanized” for the receptors recognised by human strains of the flu virus.”