This past flu season has been one of the strongest and widespread in years, and researchers at the University of South Dakota are working to determine how to predict and prepare for other outbreaks.
Victor Huber, Ph.D. assistant professor of basic biomedical sciences at the USD Sanford School of Medicine, said part of the research is focused on understanding what makes the virus more severe, and secondary bacterial infections in particular.
"We have the ability to take these viruses and put them into models of secondary bacterial infections," Huber said. "Specifically, we have viruses that are likely to cause secondary infections, and ones that are not likely to cause secondary infections, and we're comparing those two viruses."
In the lab, researchers can mix and match the components of the two different viruses so they can identify which proteins or genes are controlling the ability to set up that secondary infection, he said.
"We have the ability within these models with this technology to try and understand how these specific proteins are setting up that favorable environment for the bacteria to persist," he said.
Secondary bacterial infections are most often the cause of flu-related mortalities, Huber said.
"The virus comes in, it sort of weakens the immune system, and then bacteria comes in and has the ability to flourish and cause death," he said.
In stronger flu seasons, these secondary infections are all the more common, but thanks to the research being performed at USD and other institutions, knowledge of these virus-related proteins can be put toward developing antivirals, and potentially vaccines.
Huber said it also can lead to the development of diagnostic tools so people can start treating with antibiotics before bacteria enters, thereby preventing secondary infection.
"Our lab also focuses on developing vaccines that are more broad against the influenza virus so that you instead of updating the vaccine every year, you could do the predictions and provide a more broad immune response," he said.
However, research takes a long time, and Huber said it could be "a number of years away" before people see some of these developing technologies become fully applicable.
"It's all part of the process," he said. "Usually, 10 to 15 years is when we see some of the stuff we're doing coming out."
Huber has been a researcher for approximately 14 years, with the past four being at USD. Prior to this, he worked at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, TN.
His USD lab receives funding from the national Institute of Health, and his work is performed in collaboration with the St. Jude Center of Excellence in Influenza Research and Surveillance and South Dakota State University.
Huber said that the best preventative measure against influenza and the possibility of a secondary bacterial infection is to get a flu shot – even if you already have had the flu.
"There's always a good boost to the immune system from getting the vaccine," he said. "Exposure to the virus in nature is going to be superior to what you would get in a vaccine … but the more times that the proteins stimulate the immune system, the stronger it will be, and the less likely you'll be to get infected."