Biology department analyzes influenza

ashley.berken

Northern’s biology department is currently seeking 30 to 50 students infected with the flu virus to volunteer for blood testing to be used in the department’s on-going study on how to create a more effective flu vaccine.

Currently, flu immunizations don’t produce enough antibodies to defend the body against the flu for at least 10 days, said Osvaldo Lopez, associate professor of biology and advisor of the influenza project. He added the goal of his study is to reduce the antibody build-up time to three days, reducing the chances of infection.

Lopez has researched this subject for 15 years and was awarded three patents by the U.S. Office of Patents in the area of virology/immunology and molecular diagnosis. He was also awarded $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health and other organizations for the study, he said.

Michelle Collins, graduate student and biochemistry major, has worked on the project since the beginning of the fall semester and is heading one part of the study for her graduate thesis. She will be examining infected volunteers’ blood for antibodies and how these antibodies act once initially infected.

One of the motivations behind this research is a possible future flu epidemic, Lopez said. Americans have suffered from flu pandemics before and there is still the threat that it could happen again.

“The question is not if we have a pandemic; it is when,” he said. “In 1918, there was a flu pandemic that came from birds that killed more than 20 million people around the world. There were more people killed by the flu in 1918 than by bullets from World War I,” he said.

However, if there was an outbreak of the flu virus, Northern’s biology department is equipped to produce an influenza vaccination, said Lopez. He added that the vaccine is not FDA approved, but that in a moment of crisis, the regulations of the FDA are less strict.

Volunteers giving blood samples were crucial to scientific discoveries of the past and are important to future discoveries, Lopez said.

“Our life expectancy compared to 60 or 70 years ago is 18 years more, and the reason for that is research. If [students] can help in any research, this one or any other, they are helping themselves and others that they love. This is serious,” he said.

However, volunteers do not need to be diagnosed with the flu by a doctor to participate; they just need to show the symptoms.

Symptoms of influenza include: high fever (usually above 100 degrees Fahrenheit), headache, extreme fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches or nausea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If the student donates their blood, there will be a small tube taken to be tested and all information received during the testing will be kept confidential, Collins said. She added, however, that the only testing is for the flu virus and antibodies.

Testing will be done four times: while the volunteer is infected, one week after infection, then three weeks afterward and six weeks afterward to check the differing levels of autoantibodies and antibodies, Collins said.

Collins will be willing to waive the initial draw if students feel they can’t make it on campus. However, waiting isn’t recommended, she said.

“When you get the flu you feel horrible. Let’s say you get the flu and you don’t want to go to the health center or you don’t want to get your blood drawn; I’ll still take it a week later even though when you are infected it’s considered day zero and good to measure the antibodies,” Collins said. “If they don’t want to [come] when they’re sick and decide later, they can still call me.”

Physicians at the health center will be informing students who have the flu about the study and offering to draw their blood samples there, Collins said.

However, if a student does not want to go through a doctor’s appointment certified phlebotomists will be drawing samples at the Clinical Science Laboratory (CLS) in the New Science Facility, said Luci Contois, director and professor of clinical lab science and also the supervisor of blood draws at the CLS.

Contois added that the study is worth participation since it has a large group effort supporting the outcome.

“I think it is a worthy investigation that encompasses students from chemistry, biology and clinical laboratory science. I cannot speculate about the results, but I think the study is a fine example of interdisciplinary collaboration,” she said.

To give blood samples on campus without a doctor’s appointment contact Collins at (906) 250-8519 or e-mail her at [email protected]