Protecting people and animals from deadly flu viruses

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© L'Oréal Foundation
Professor Hualan Chen, 2016 laureate of the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards
© L'Oréal Foundation
13 April 2016

As the Head of China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory in Harbin, Professor Hualan Chen was our first line of defense when cases of a new and deadly bird flu virus, H7N9, began to appear in 2013. The danger was averted thanks to her team’s vigilance – their tests allowed for the timely identification of markets, farms and environments where immediate action was required. In 2016, Prof. Chen received a l’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award in recognition of her achievements in pursuing her goal of “using my knowledge, experience, expertise, and technology to try to protect humans and animals from a devastating disease.” While flu surveillance remains Chen’s top priority, her research has led to major breakthroughs and she has developed two innovative new vaccines for both humans and animals.

 Professor Hualan Chen receiving the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science award. © L'Oréal Foundation

Animals, birds and people can all be infected by flu viruses that mutate constantly, swapping genetic materials and creating new strains with new characteristics. The fear is always that a lethal animal or bird strain acquires abilities to infect humans but also to spread quickly among us. It’s the makings of a worldwide flu pandemic, of the sort that killed more than 40 million people in 1918.

Professor Chen protects people and animals through surveillance but she is also known for her ambitious experiments creating flu hybrids that help to understand the exact nature of the threats posed by wild emerging flu strains. Her research has proven invaluable in both saving human lives and in averting the catastrophic economic costs of livestock epidemics.

Because influenza viruses are moving targets that mutate and change as they constantly migrate from continent to continent, international collaborations are crucial to understanding, controlling and perhaps one day eradicating this often deadly disease” explained Prof. Chen, who continues to cooperate with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in the US, where she undertook post-doctoral research, and its worldwide network of scientists. Her vaccines and research are widely used in China, Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam, among others.

Professor Hualan Chen’s impact on global health is exceptional. She is one of many women researchers who are changing the world through their work. Yet, the disparities between men and women in science are still considerable. A manifesto for women in science was launched in Paris at the close the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award ceremony, to draw attention to the need to ensure gender parity in science. Join the movement for women in science, sign the manifesto.

 Professor Hualan Chen. © L'Oréal Foundation