Flu Breakthrough

November 30, 2009

Before the telltale sore throat, fever, and muscle fatigue appear, Duke researchers say they can tell who is infected with a common upper respiratory virus, like the cold or flu. They have identified a genomic signature in the blood that reveals whether a patient has been exposed to the virus or not. 

The body's immune system starts responding very quickly and in a highly specific manner when exposed to a viral pathogen. A detailed genetic reading of that response reveals what type of pathogen the person is reacting to.

Especially notable in this period of H1N1 hypervigilance, researchers say their findings could revolutionize the way infectious disease is treated.

"This approach could lead to more precise, informed, and tailored therapy—essentially, personalized care for infectious disease. That's better for the patient and better for public health in general," says Geoffrey Ginsburg, professor of pathology and founding director of the Center for Genomic Medicine in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.

Ginsburg and colleagues from the medical center, the Pratt School of Engineering, and the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center are teaming up to create a case study on campus.

Some of the university's public-health professionals have dubbed themselves the "Flu Crew," and have recruited hundreds of students to participate in a research project. Students, both healthy and infected with H1N1 or another upper respiratory virus, have blood drawn and tested, and also answer questions online daily about their condition.

The goal is to better understand how viruses live and spread in close quarters, and to aid in making a portable blood-testing device that will accurately detect a cold or flu before symptoms appear, using the genetic signatures discovered in earlier research.

In September, the researchers received a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for further development of the device.