Pioneering flu researcher wins major Imperial scientific award

One of the UK's leading experts on the influenza virus is this year's winner of the Ernst Chain Prize, an annual award by Imperial College London that celebrates scientific excellence.

Sir John Skehel, Director of the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research is the second recipient of the award, which was launched in 2003. He will deliver his prize lecture at Imperial on 16 March.

Funded by the Kohn Foundation, the Prize honours a career scientist who has made an original and substantive contribution in any field of science that has furthered, or is likely to further, understanding or management of human disease.

Working for the past 30 years on the influenza virus, Sir John led the team that first deciphered the molecular detail of how the flu virus latches on to and infects a cell, and subsequently how the virus evolves to stay one step ahead of the immune system.

By visualising the key viral surface protein, haemagglutinin (HA), which is responsible for docking with the target cell, Sir John was able to show how the virus fuses with the cell membrane. He found that flu virus uses a pH-controlled system, which triggers a large structural change in HA to unveil a special fusion protein that latches onto the cell. Sir John also demonstrated that this fusion process is used by viruses such as HIV, a discovery which has helped to develop antiviral drugs that interfere with this mechanism.

Most recently, Sir John led a team of MRC scientists in mapping the structure of the strain of influenza responsible for the 1918 pandemic, which globally killed more than 20 million people. Researchers at outbreak surveillance centres around the world hope that knowledge of the structure will provide valuable clues in determining whether new variants of the virus have killer potential.

Imperial's Rector Sir Richard Sykes says:

"As global monitoring centres remain on high alert, watching to see if

Contact: Judith H Moore
Imperial College London

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