“Why do you never get ill?”

This morning I awoke to an eye-watering, sneezing, sniffling, croaky version of my usually gorgeous wife.
This led to me taking over nursing duties and thoughts of, “Why do some people, who seemingly take every precaution still get the flu, while others never even get the sniffles?

Being very fortunate, I’m very rarely ill. My basic stance is always down to a positive state of mind and a healthy…ish living.  A comment that went down like a lead balloon. So with my sparring partner feeling distinctly under the weather I decided to find a ‘proper answer’.

From a little reading I understand that  Professor Alfred Hero at the University of Michigan College of Engineering and colleagues from Duke University Medical Center and the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy have recently begin to unravel our complex genomic data and understand why some get sick while others don’t.

“Genomics is a discipline in genetics concerning the study of the genomes of organisms. The field includes intensive efforts to determine the entire DNA sequence of organisms and fine-scale genetic mapping efforts.” Thanks Wikipedia!

One of the primary analysis methods used to discover the genomic signatures associated with immune response and flu symptoms, was a pattern-recognition tool previously developed for processing hyperspectral satellite images of the earth, called Bayes Linear Unmixing. Professor Hero applied it with virtually no modification to image the gene expression patterns. (Another successful spin-off from space research and why the world should continue to invest).

Using these genomic signatures, researchers compared the responses of previously healthy participants innoculated with the flu, and found significant and complex immune responses in both people who got sick and those who did not.

The resulting gene expression data is the key to how the immune system reacts and structures its response to a virus, which then dictates whether people get sick or not.

The study, the largest of it type, looked at over 22,000 genes in 267 blood samples and reveals what happens after a person is exposed to the virus. The team inoculated 17 healthy individuals with the flu virus, with about half of them getting sick. The gene expression data from each individual was collected at 16 time points over 132 hours. The data showed a clear picture of the gene expression over time in those who developed flu symptoms and those who did not.

Eventually, if scientists can understand what happens at the level of the genome that makes people more or less susceptible to viral illness, they could potentially prevent the illness. Hero said the inflammatory genomic signature that differentiated the well group from the sick group was measurable up to about 36 hours before peak flu symptoms developed. It may, therefore, be possible to detect illness early, allowing people to take precautions and perhaps even prevent the worst symptoms.

So now the Scientisits can begin to discover the underlying biology to resisting infection. Flu free winters here we come!

Needless to say, trying to explain this this has not made my wife feel any better, but my Sunday afternoon was not entirely wasted.

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