Hope and spray: Brits line up to get a dose of deadly flu

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Hope and spray: Brits line up to get a dose of deadly flu

Volunteers to be infected with a lethal strain in a bid to to find a better cure

Sarah Knapton

Volunteers in the UK will be infected with a dangerous strain of flu to find out why some people become dangerously ill, while others quickly shake off the virus.
Researchers at Imperial College London want to develop a test which can accurately predict which patients can be safely sent home after contracting influenza, and which should be monitored in hospital.
Currently scientists do not really understand the underlying genetic and immune system differences which make some people more susceptible to the virus.
They will be infecting 10 volunteers with the H3N2 flu strain, which is one of the most dangerous common strains, and will be monitoring how their bodies react. They hope that a test to find out who is most at risk will be available within three to five years.Study leader Dr Chris Chiu, clinical senior lecturer at Imperial College and a consultant in infections at Hammersmith Hospital, said: “I think a lot of people don’t appreciate that flu is a major cause of death in the elderly, young babies and pregnant women, and in the winter creates a massive strain on (health services).
“The immediate benefit of these trials would be to develop a test to risk-assess the patient and better understand whether they will become severely ill or just get better, so you could start treatment earlier or admit them to hospital.
“If you can work out at the front door who is going to get better you can focus more effort on the people who are really at risk.”
In the study, which is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), 10 volunteers will be given flu through a nasal spray and then placed in quarantine for 10 days, with their vital signs monitored throughout. They will also have their genes profiled to see which genetic variants are protective.
Bigger picture
The team is also hoping the results will show which parts of the immune and respiratory system ramp up when someone is infected with flu so they can target those systems with drugs. They are also keen to find out whether a universal vaccine against all flu strains is possible that works by boosting the immune system rather than targeting individual strains, so that it could protect people against emerging pandemics, such as bird flu.
Imperial is only one of four sites in the world that is allowed to infect people with influenza for research purposes.
Flu has become an increasing problem in recent years. The vaccine is usually based on strains that are circulating during winter in the southern hemisphere, six months before they reach the big northern hemisphere population centres, but in recent years the strains have mutated unexpectedly, leaving people unprotected.More than 200 people died of flu in the UK last winter, three times more than the previous year, after four strains of the virus were found to be circulation in Britain, including “Aussie” and “Japanese” types.
Better than a jab
Most previous studies into influenza have looked at the H1N1 strain, but most people have now been exposed to that type and already carry antibodies. In contrast, H3N2 is far more dangerous and is known to mutate much faster, making it difficult to produce a vaccine against it.
In a second study, scientists will give volunteers a nasal-spray flu vaccine to find out why it seems to work better than the usual jab, in the hope they can improve annual vaccinations.Dr Chiu added: “Volunteer infection studies are often the only way to understand these factors. When people are infected naturally it is almost impossible to know exactly when they were exposed to the virus, what strain of virus it is, and how much they received.
“Volunteer infection studies allow us to control some of these factors so that changes in the immune response responsible for controlling or worsening disease are revealed.”
Dr Martin Broadstock, programme manager for immunology at the MRC, said: “Volunteer infection studies are fundamental in understanding disease because they provide an insight into how infections unfold before patients even present with symptoms. These findings can then drive development of new vaccines or treatments.
“Our hope is these projects receiving funding may pave the way to improved tools to combat them.”
– © The Daily Telegraph

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