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H7N9 and other pathogenic avian influenza viruses elicit a three-pronged transcriptomic signature that is reminiscent of 1918 influenza virus and is associated with lethal outcome in mice.



Modulating the host response is a promising approach to treating influenza, caused by a virus whose pathogenesis is determined in part by the reaction it elicits within the host. Though the pathogenicity of emerging H7N9 influenza virus in several animal models has been reported, these studies have not included a detailed characterization of the host response following infection. Therefore, we characterized the transcriptomic response of BALB/c mice infected with H7N9 (A/Anhui/01/2013) virus and compared it to the responses induced by H5N1 (A/Vietnam/1203/2004), H7N7 (A/Netherlands/219/2003), and pandemic 2009 H1N1 (A/Mexico/4482/2009) influenza viruses. We found that responses to the H7 subtype viruses were intermediate to those elicited by H5N1 and pdm09H1N1 early in infection but that they evolved to resemble the H5N1 response as infection progressed. H5N1, H7N7, and H7N9 viruses were pathogenic in mice, and this pathogenicity correlated with increased transcription of cytokine response genes and decreased transcription of lipid metabolism and coagulation signaling genes. This three-pronged transcriptomic signature was observed in mice infected with pathogenic H1N1 strains such as the 1918 virus, indicating that it may be predictive of pathogenicity across multiple influenza virus strains. Finally, we used host transcriptomic profiling to computationally predict drugs that reverse the host response to H7N9 infection, and we identified six FDA-approved drugs that could potentially be repurposed to treat H7N9 and other pathogenic influenza viruses.


Emerging avian influenza viruses are of global concern because the human population is immunologically naive to them. Current influenza drugs target viral molecules, but the high mutation rate of influenza viruses eventually leads to the development of antiviral resistance. As the host evolves far more slowly than the virus, and influenza pathogenesis is determined in part by the host response, targeting the host response is a promising approach to treating influenza. Here we characterize the host transcriptomic response to emerging H7N9 influenza virus and compare it with the responses to H7N7, H5N1, and pdm09H1N1. All three avian viruses were pathogenic in mice and elicited a transcriptomic signature that also occurs in response to the legendary 1918 influenza virus. Our work identifies host responses that could be targeted to treat severe H7N9 influenza and identifies six FDA-approved drugs that could potentially be repurposed as H7N9 influenza therapeutics.

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