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New Research Targets How To Fight Influenza

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November 26, 2013 1:19 p.m.


Wilma Wooten, M.D., San Diego County public health officer

Miriam Cohen, cell biologist, UC San Diego

Related Story: New Research Targets How To Fight Influenza


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I am Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. The top story today, we're talking about the flu. A lot of people are still in t-shirts and shorts but in the next couple weeks the flu will be rear its ugly head. We'll talk to a researcher at UC San Diego with a discovery that can change the way that scientists think about therapies for flu. Earlier this morning I talked with Wilma Wooten, talking about how this flu season is should be.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Is it true to say that the flu is not the same flu these days? It something more threatening now?

WILMA WOOTEN: Currently the flu season flu season is rather mild and as of today we have not threatening effects of flu season and it's rather mild at this point in time but the flu season has not peaked. Last year it peaked in late January and early February and the severity of symptoms were greater last year but we have not seen that so much to date this year. Right now we're looking at indicators that help us determine how severe are superseded is going to be and that is the number of viral protections that we get an the number of influences and four and the like influences reported to the emergency department which is that 1% right now. That could go much higher depending on how the flu season goes.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I remember last year a lot of people got sick. Was that an unusual year or is it a matter of the virus becoming more serious as times goes on?

WILMA WOOTEN: It's related to the type of strain. The good news is that even though that particular strain is more severe, the vaccine that was offered last year and the vaccine this year cover that particular strain very well.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Some well-informed people still resist getting the flu shot and some people say that our it's not worth it, and what you to that?

WILMA WOOTEN: We tell everyone including our health professionals is that the single most important measure that one can take to prevent getting the flu is to get the flu vaccination.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Now we know with other vaccines some parents still resist getting their children vaccinated in the latest news suggests that vaccine is getting less effective.

WILMA WOOTEN: There different types of illnesses and germs for pertussis vaccine wanes after 3 to 5 years. That actually is the reason why the American committee and the committee that makes recommendations to the CDC about vaccination practices make the recommendation incorporate the TDAP Booster to support the series.

ALISON ST. JOHN: But the flu vaccine is a different kettle of fish.

WILMA WOOTEN: Yes. That strain changes each year.

ALISON ST. JOHN: People who are skeptical say there is no suggestion that the vaccine is effective.

WILMA WOOTEN: The information that we have is today the virus and viral detections match well with the strains that are included in the vaccine.

ALISON ST.JOHN: What percentage of people actually get a flu shot?

WILMA WOOTEN: No I do not know the actual percentage, we don't keep track of all of the individuals who get flu shots and private care provider offices.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Is it too late to get a flu shot now?

WILMA WOOTEN: It absolutely not, we go from November through the end of March. They can go even later into April. This flu season has not yet peaked so it's not too late you can get a flu shot even through February and March. Definitely not too late to be vaccinated.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We all think of flu coming at the cold time of year but does cold weather play into catching the flu?

WILMA WOOTEN: Not just catching it but when people are called closer proximity and that cold dry air dries out the mucosa that protect the body. The virus can more easily penetrate the mucousal lining.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Why not just get the antiviral drug?

WILMA WOOTEN: You have to take the antiviral drug within forty-eight hours. By the time people even understand that they have the virus the flu has already left.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Tell us about how available the flu vaccine is in San Diego

WILMA WOOTEN: It's very available. It's been available since August. It is it is available at most health healthcare providers.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Thank you so much for joining us.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And now we have Miriam Cohen who is doing research at UC San Diego. You've discovered more about how the flu virus works. Thank you for joining us. Let's start what is the difference between the kind of vaccines that Doctor Wooten was talking about and that your research could affect.

MIRIAM COHEN: One thing that I would like to say is to give people a people a picture of how the vaccine works. The vaccine is the enemy and we give the body the vaccine to show what the enemy looks like. It's like showing it at the next FBI picture of the most wanted enemy. It is the way to show the immune system who the enemy is. What we're now working on is our natural protection against viruses. Protect against the virus infection trick. You may have a virus entering your airways, after you quit shopping. That virus does need to go through the mucous layer in order to reach the cells. The influenza virus in particular binds to sugars.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So what does it what has your research discovered? About with the way that the virus spreads?

MIRIAM COHEN: So the virus is to get all the way to the mucous layer to bind to sugars. However, the mucous is basically a web of sugars. It's like a spider web pact with sugars and you have a tiny virus that tries to reach all the way to the cells, however it is surrounded and it can get confused.

ALISON ST. JOHN: Mucous is the body's way of defending against the virus?

MIRIAM COHEN: Yes it creates a decoy. The traps the virus there. But the virus does have trick to get over that. It has a set of scissors that clip away the sugars. You may have heard in previous years, terms like the swine flu and H1N1. These letters actually to meet me something. They mean that they describe the two most interesting proteins on the surface of the virus. H1 is the protein that holds onto the sugars and N1 is the sugar that cuts the sugars.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So how does this research change the way that scientists develop therapies for the flu?

MIRIAM COHEN: So far there up into effective drugs that were developed to prevent infection. It was said that you need to take them shortly after you've been exposed.

ALISON ST. JOHN: And then it's too late and you're going to get the full anyway.

MIRIAM COHEN: And if it's too late your already sick. What these drugs do is jammed the scissors. It jams the scissor ability to cut through the service. It does two things. It prevents his baby baby viruses from coming out of the infected cell and went in the virus infects cell then they go into the cell and make more to this makes you sicker and sicker. Because the cells are covered with sugar and the H holding on to the sugar protein the baby virus gets stuck on the cells. It is like Velcro.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So it prevents them from proliferating?

MIRIAM COHEN: Yes from spreading out. You need that action from that and protein did keep it from creeping away.

ALISON ST. JOHN: So does that pin it to mucous?

MIRIAM COHEN: Yes that's what the drug was designed to do. What we found is the sugars in the mucus helps to retain the virus there, and prevented from coming down into the cells in fact, locking the scissors basically would get the virus to the mucus. Kind of like a fly stuck in the spider web, give the fly a lot of time it will set its self free and it must do that before the spider gets home.

ALISON ST. JOHN: I love these images that you have. Why would the therapies that your research is pointing towards be better than the ones that we already have?

MIRIAM COHEN: They are cured in slightly different timing. They are more of a way to enhance our own natural protection against the virus by but with having less side effects. Instead of making a superstrong inhibitor of the scissors, they can have some side effects that we don't want general bodies, for example be another animals also have these similar scissor like proteins the and proteins the actually a very important in the brain interconnected system so you might have cases of side effects in a change of our behavior or pack posit depression or behavior changes unwanted and patience but because the mucus layer action gets washed away every time you swallow. You do this every time you swallow. The whole mucus layer is being completely refreshed every couple of hours. Whatever gets stuck there and doesn't get away in time, if the mucus to start and if if the virus is not gets away from the mucus to fast of fast enough and it will get you sick. We could make something less dangerous that will not affect your body but will prevent you from getting sick.

ALISON ST. JOHN: In the minute we have left, is it likely that your research will create a therapy that is more effective for people who don't want flu shots?

MIRIAM COHEN: That would be a little different approach. The vaccine gives you protection throughout the postseason, what our medication would be catered toward is saying you want to go or you're going to be on an airplane you want to make sure that you do not get sick. Then you would take that medication. It's not going to give you the long-term protection that of vaccination does. Not catered to that.

ALISON ST. JOHN: There is a battle going on and you're on the right side with your research. That is Miriam Cohen, a cell biologist at UC San Diego.