Gene Study Shows Flu Connection With Severe Infections
June 29, 2012

Gene Study Shows Flu Connection With Severe Infections

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

The common cold, otherwise known as the flu, can creep up on unsuspecting people. It can leave people with fevers, sore throat, cough, runny nose, chills, fatigue, nausea, among other symptoms. Researchers have been looking into the flu to better understand the body´s responses to viruses. Scientists recently found how a new gene in the influenza virus could control the virus to manage the body´s actions against an infection.

The research was completed by a collaborative team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, University College Cork, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Utah, the Institute of Systems Biology, and the United States National Institutes of Health. The findings are published online in the journal Science.

Even though the virus manages the body´s response, it decreases the influence of the infection. In particular, when mice were infected with the active virus gene PA-X, they often recovered from having the flu. Researchers believe that the findings will help in terms of understanding how the flu can initiate severe infections. They believe that the new research will assist in the development of new treatments.

"Just finding this gene in the first place is important, but the find is even more significant because of the role it seems to play in the body's response to flu,” noted Paul Digard, a member of The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, in a prepared statement.

The study focused on the how the gene affected the response of the “Spanish flu,” which is a virulent strain of influenza that initiated a pandemic that occurred in 1918. The researchers discovered the gene by studying the genetic information for patterns of changes. They analyzed thousands of different flu strains.

"The flu virus has a very, very small genome - just 12 genes. Finding a new gene makes a pretty significant change to our understanding of this virus," commented Dr. Andrew Firth, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, in the statement.

In particular, each of the influenza viruses has a shell that contains eight strains of RNA. RNA is a genetic molecule that is connected to DNA. While some of the strands can encode many different genes, each of the strains creates a different protein. Before the research, scientists thought that there were only eight strains that had 12 different genes. However, the new study shows that there may possibly be 13 different genes. As such, the influenza genome is thought to have overlapping instructions for protein production.

According to Discover Magazine, the new gene discovered by the researchers is also found in the virus´ third RNA strand that was thought to only have the PA gene. The PA gene assists the virus to make a copy of its genome. When the gene PA allowed the virus to make a copy of the genome, it gave PA-X a different task in cutting up bits of RNA from the virus´s host and stopped the host from activating genes. As a result, the host-cell turned off and the host wasn´t able to create a defense against the virus. Furthermore, the host ended up producing proteins based off the genetic instructions from the virus rather than eliminating the RNA.

The results of the project leave many questions to be answered and researchers can possibly investigate whether it´s possible to create better treatments for the flu by targeting the gene PA-X.

“This is indeed an exciting finding in the flu field,” remarked virologist Ron Fouchier in an article by Discover Magazine.