Want to Get the Flu? Catching the Influenza Virus Infection On Purpose

Volunteers agree to get injected with the flu virus, all in the name of science. Image by the CDC.

Volunteers agree to get injected with the flu virus, all in the name of science. Image by the CDC.

Most people try to avoid catching the flu by taking precautions such as washing their hands often, avoiding people who are already sick, or getting a flu shot.

However, scientist are giving volunteers the flu on purpose by squirting the virus up their nose, all in the name of science.

Why would scientists get people sick on purpose? They want to better understand how the flu virus works, so that they can develop a better flu shot.

Want to Get the Flu?

While we know a lot about the influenza virus and how it works, scientists still don’t completely understand how the body fends off the influenza virus. To gain a better understanding of how the body works to fight off the flu virus, scientists gave the flu to several volunteers and monitored them. Dr. Matthew Memoli of the National Institutes of Health, led the study, and hopes to inject 100 adults with the flu virus over this coming year.

Volunteering to Get the Flu

Dr. Memoli chooses his volunteers carefully, as the flu can bring on complications and make underlying medical conditions worse. He also set guidelines that the volunteers need to be healthy and not older than 50 years old, and chose a flu virus strain that would only produce mild to moderate symptoms for his volunteers.

The catch is that to prevent spreading the flu, these volunteers have to spend at least nine days quarantined in an isolation ward of the National Institute’s of Health Hospital. Their health is closely monitored, and they are released once nasal tests show that they are no longer contagious. The reward? About $3,000. The downside? Other than having the flu, you might just get a scolding email from your mother, like 26 year old volunteer Daniel Bennett did, according to NBC-2.

The H1N1 virus is the most prevalent among flu viruses for the 2013-2014 flu season. Image by the CDC.

The H1N1 virus is the most prevalent among flu viruses for the 2013-2014 flu season. Image by the CDC.

Influenza, Antibodies and the Flu Shot

Everyone has antibodies; they’re the ‘good guys’ when it comes to germ fighting. An antibody is a protein that is produced when the body detects the ‘bad guys’ called antigens.

Antigens can be parasites, bacteria, fungi, or viruses. Your body develops specific antibodies to fight off specific antigens. The flu shot, in particular, is designed to raise your antibodies to help fight off the flu virus.

Unfortunately, it isn’t clear as to which antibody we should be trying to increase. The flu shot aims to target the hemagglutinin, which is the “H” in the H1N1 virus. However, targeting the hemagglutinin alone may not be enough; could targeting neuraminidase, the “N” in the H1N1 virus help? Or could targeting a T cell as well be the the missing link to a more effective flu vaccine?

In the study, Dr. Memoli has found that some of the volunteers, even those with low antibodies have not gotten sick – this means that something else must be working to protect their bodies from the flu virus.

To begin finding the missing links, Dr. Memoli developed a laboratory-grown copy of the H1N1 virus for the volunteers. He is now testing two groups, those with high levels of antibodies and those with low levels. Some of the volunteers recieved a flu shot, others did not.  Dr Memoli will compare the groups based on how sick they get, how long they are contagious, and how the immune system battles the virus. 

Flu Virus Infection: Missing Clues

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone ages six months and older get the flu shot. However, in those ages 65 and older, the flu shot is least effective and unfortunately, this group is also the most susceptible to the flu. Dr. Memoli hopes that by studying how the body fights off the flu virus in younger adults, scientists can then develop a better flu vaccine for everyone.

Would You Get the Flu On Purpose?

This study, called a human challenge study, has not been conducted in the United States with a flu virus in over a decade. Understanding the difference between how a body of a younger adult fights off flu compared to that of an older adult, may help figure out the missing pieces to the puzzle. So, the question is, would you be willing to get the flu so that scientists could make a better vaccine?

© Copyright 2014 Janelle Vaesa, MPH, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science

Resources for this article

NBC news. Want to get the flu? Volunteers sneeze for science. (2014). Accessed on January 29, 2014

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . Preventing Seasonal Flu with Vaccine. (2013). Accessed on January 29, 2014

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