Infectious-disease researcher honoured for flu-treatment discovery

(Edmonton) The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Deepali Kumar has been awarded the lone 2011 Gold Medal in Medicine from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

“It’s very exciting. It’s a real privilege,” said Kumar, professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta. “I think it really reinforces all the work that we do.  It highlights the research strength we have at the University of Alberta, in both virology and transplantation. ”

The award, one of the most prestigious prizes in Canadian medicine, was given to Kumar for her research into treating transplant patients who contracted the H1N1 flu virus during the pandemic. Kumar discovered immuno-suppressed transplant patients who are given anti-viral treatment within 48 hours of showing flu symptoms have improved outcomes and lower hospital admission rates. Her work also has implications in the treatment of any flu strain in transplant patients.

“If we suspect a transplant patient has the flu, we should empirically start anti-viral medicine while waiting for our test results,” said Kumar. “The test result takes time to come back, so if you wait for that result, you’ve missed that early window already.”

Kumar coordinated with 26 sites in North America to collect data from 237 cases of medically attended influenza during the H1N1 pandemic. 

“It was really interesting to coordinate all those centres but everybody was just wonderful,” said Kumar, who adds she used the American Society of Transplantation to reach physicians at various transplant centres across North America. “Everyone was seeing patients with H1N1 and they weren’t sure what to expect and what the management should be for these [transplant] patients. Everyone was very enthusiastic to participate.”

Her results were published in the top infectious disease journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases, in 2010. That caught the eye of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada who awarded Kumar the gold medal last month.

Many of the 26 sites, including the U of A, are still on board with work being done by Kumar. The next project for her is studying how the flu virus behaves in transplant patients and how their immune system responds when they get infected. Kumar says that transplant patients shed the virus in greater quantities than non-transplanted patients and they shed it for longer, so this could have important public health implications.

“We’ve become a centre of excellence for influenza research in transplant patients,” said Kumar.