Researchers Focus on New, Innovative Ways to Combat Flu

Gina Kokosky
Published Online: Wednesday, February 7th, 2018
As influenza activity continues to spike across the United States, researchers are focusing on developing new ways to protect against the flu.

According to a new study published in Nature Communications, researchers have detected signs of the influenza virus genome that can determine how it will multiply. Through monitoring these features, scientists may be able to help prevent a flu outbreak. 

A pandemic flu is caused by the genetic mixture of flu strains from different species, such as pigs and humans or birds and humans. Pandemic strains of the flu are more powerful, as they spread fast and make people sicker. A pandemic flu outbreak could result in millions of deaths across the United States, according to the authors.

Places where humans and animals live closely are often monitored for pandemic flu outbreaks.

Influenza virus’ genome is comprised of 8 pieces of RNA. If 2 or more strains of the flu interact within a cell, the RNA pieces from each strain mix, creating a new strain of the flu with genetic makeup from each parental strain, according to the authors.

“We think that two strains need to have similar features in their genome to reassort and make a new virus,” study author, Jacco Boon, PhD said in a press release. “We hope that in the future, this work will allow us to focus on certain strains of influenza virus and target our surveillance more narrowly so we have a better chance of identifying the next pandemic flu before it spreads.”

The study demonstrated that parts of the RNA genome in flu strains fold into specific 3D shapes that are essential for multiplication. The authors also noted that by mutating the 3D shape of the virus, they could inhibit reproduction. Mutations that did not affect the shape of the genome did not reduce multiplication.

With thousands of flu strains, those with very diverse 3D structures may not be able to genetically combine to form a new strain, according to the study.

These findings suggest that a better understanding of the flu may be able to prevent pandemic outbreaks like the one that is plaguing the United States.

“Right now we do surveillance on pretty much everything,” Dr. Boon said, “But if we know that the viruses from a certain species or a certain region just don’t have the right RNA features, then we can make surveilling them a lower priority. If we can focus our resources more effectively, we may be able to catch the next pandemic flu before it really gets going.”
ID’ing features of flu virus genome may help target surveillance for pandemic flu [news release]. St. Louis, MO. Washington University School of Medicine press office. Jan. 31, 2018. Accessed at: Feb. 5, 2018. 

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