Influenza is one of the most common infectious causes of death in Ontario and a threat of a novel pandemic strain of the virus persists. There is only one class of drugs available for influenza and resistance has already been reported. Because the virus mutates constantly, vaccination is not always effective or rapidly available.

This has resulted in a critical need for new drugs to treat both seasonal and pandemic influenza. Most traditional approaches to identify potential drugs use isolated cells grown in dishes. But this is too simple, since isolated cells cannot mimic a whole animal. The compounds that are identified often later prove toxic when tested in animal models. To overcome these limitations, Dr. Lee is using zebrafish as a model organism for severe flu. These tiny fish are inexpensive and easy to grow in large numbers. He will screen libraries of novel compounds for agents that prevent flu-induced death.

“We have already established that the influenza virus can infect and kill zebrafish, and we are looking for new drugs that will rescue the infected zebrafish.”

Once promising drugs are found, they will see whether they also rescue mice infected with influenza. Drugs that protect both zebrafish and mice will then be studied in detail to determine how they work.

“We are the first to use zebrafish to screen for drugs against influenza.”

This project combines the advantages of rapid screening and the power of testing infections in an intact vertebrate.