Subscribe to the BioNews newsletter for free

Advanced Search

Search for

Like the Progress Educational Trust on Facebook



Genetic flaw raises flu risk

02 April 2012

By Dr Nadeem Shaikh

Appeared in BioNews 651

Differences in the severity of people's flu symptoms may be due to a genetic variant, according to scientists.

Normally the gene in question, IFITM3, produces a protein that stops the flu virus invading cells. Researchers found that when mice without this gene were exposed to the flu virus they suffered more critical symptoms, such as severe pneumonia, than normal mice. The virus also replicated ten times more than in the normal mice and penetrated deeper into the lungs.

In the general European population, around one in 400 people have a mutated version of IFITM3 that produces less of the protective protein. However, when the team analysed the genomes of 53 patients who had been hospitalised due to a flu infection, they found that one in 20 had the mutation.

Furthermore, people in intensive care with severe pandemic or seasonal flu in the UK were 17 times more likely to have a mutated version of IFITM3, when compared to Europeans in general.

This evidence suggests the gene plays a critical role in determining how vulnerable people will be to infection.

Co-author Professor Paul Kellam of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute acknowledged that since not all patients with severe symptoms carry the variant gene, it clearly is not the only factor to take into consideration.

'At the moment, if someone is in a more vulnerable group because of co-morbidity [another health problem], they would be offered the flu vaccine', he told the BBC. 'Our research is important for people who have this variant as we predict their immune defences could be weakened to some virus infections'.

The study, published in Nature, also reports that the IFITM3 gene became more widespread in humans around 10,000 years ago. This coincides with the time humans are thought to have first caught the flu, from livestock, suggesting it is part of an evolutionary adaptation to the emergence of the flu virus.

Analysis of IFITM3 may lead to patient screening to identify those who are potentially more vulnerable, making them a priority for vaccination. It may also help to design new vaccines against different types of viruses, not just influenza.

BBC | 25 March 2012
Daily Mail | 26 March 2012
Nature | 25 March 2012
New Scientist | 26 March 2012
Reuters | 25 March 2012


03 June 2013 - by Dr Anna Cauldwell 
A gene therapy technique can protect mammals from lethal strains of influenza, according to US researchers...
15 April 2013 - by David O'Rourke 
Synthetic biology is being used in the hunt for a vaccine for H7N9, the new strain of bird flu emerging in China, with hopes it could shave a vital two weeks off the development process...
04 February 2013 - by Matthew Thomas 
A genetic variant frequently found in Chinese populations may explain why severe complications from swine flu are more common in China. The discovery may also have implications for other influenza virus strains and help scientists understand why flu outbreaks hit some populations harder than others....
25 June 2012 - by Dr Greg Ball 
Controversial research showing how the H5N1 'bird flu' virus can be altered to make it transmissible between mammals through the air has been published, nine months after it was first presented at a conference....
15 May 2012 - by Nishat Hyder 
The genetic cause of blonde hair may be different in populations in Europe and Oceania, researchers have found. A single mutation in the TYRP1 gene, which is not associated with blonde hair in Europeans, was found in around one-quarter of Solomon Islanders and is believed to be major determinant for the pigmentation...

20 February 2012 - by Oliver Timmis 
What time of day it is could influence whether or not we get an infection. A protein known to be involved in the immune system may be influenced by the body's circadian rhythm, according to researchers at Yale University...
07 November 2011 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
Stem cells that are able to regenerate damaged lung tissue have been discovered by scientists. The brochioalveolar stem cells (BASCs), naturally present in the lungs of rodents and humans, are capable of rebuilding alveoli - the small air sacs in lungs...
03 October 2011 - by George Frodsham 
Genetic differences between men and women could mean that women are better at resisting certain infections and diseases than men, a new study suggests. The second X chromosome in women gives them an immunological advantage over men, possibly giving credence to man's perceived susceptibility to 'man-flu'....
30 August 2011 - by Dr Zara Mahmoud 
Scientists have suggested there may be a genetic basis behind the way our body reacts to the flu virus, making some of us more vulnerable than others. A study published in PLoS Genetics has tracked the body's response to the H3N2/Wisconsin strain of the flu virus at the genetic level. The researchers injected the virus into 17 volunteers and analysed expression patterns from the time of injection to the onset of full-blown clinical symptoms...

Be the first to have your say.

You need to or  to add comments.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

- click here to enquire about using this story.

Published by the Progress Educational Trust


Public Conference
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


Good Fundraising Code

Become a Friend of PET HERE and give the Progress Educational Trust a regular donation