Research Something to Sneeze at

07/28/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By Lisa Redmond

LOWELL -- Got the flu? UMass Lowell wants you.

Patricia Fabian, a postdoctoral fellow at UMass Lowell's Work Environment Department, and Dr. Donald Milton, a professor of aerobiology, have made a breakthrough in researching the influenza virus as part of the Gesundheit Study, which will enter its second year of research in October.

When it comes to stopping the spread of the influenza virus, the UMass Lowell researchers have found that your mother's warning to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze is not enough. The initial results of the study found that a sick person can spread the virus simply by exhaling.

The next task of the researchers is to find out if that virus is infectious.

The study team also includes UMass Lowell research professor James McDevitt, along with colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Hong Kong and Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong.
Their study, published last week in the online journal PLoS ONE, reports on the concentration of influenza virus RNA in the exhaled breath of people infected with the flu.

"It's novel,'' Fabian said about the research. "No one has looked at airborne transmission through breathing. The focus has been on coughing and sneezing.''

Until recently, the equipment to measure the "really tiny'' flu virus was not available, said the 33-year-old Bedford resident. Part of Fabian's job is to refine and perfect the equipment.

"Detecting a single virus is not that easy, especially when it is diluted by a lot of air,'' Milton said.
Some of their colleagues remain skeptical of the Gesundheit study's initial results. Milton, 57, of Lexington, admits, "We have to prove it.''

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are funding the $550,000 study, which initially tested patients in Hong Kong who exhibited flu symptoms.
"The CDC has been very supportive,'' Milton said.
This past spring, the study team used subjects from the Lowell area.

And that's where you might come in. This winter, the study will pay 100 sick volunteers from the Lowell area $80 each to test their breath for the infectious virus. The researchers will also look at the effectiveness of surgical masks.

More than 36,000 people in the United States die of the flu each year, Milton said. It hits babies and the elderly the hardest. But in a flu pandemic, it's not just infants and the elderly who get sick and die.
The plans for a pandemic, for example, call for closing public schools for six to eight months, Milton said. Closing the schools would only send the children to the mall, he said.

By understanding how the flu virus is transmitted, other things can be done to clean the air, such as changes in ventilation, masks and ultraviolet lighting, he said.

"People shouldn't freak out,'' Milton said. "It could be as simple as just opening the windows. We just don't know yet.''

The motivation for this research is not new. Aerobiology was "pretty big'' about 50 years ago, Milton said, but with the success of antibiotics and vaccines, there was much less interest. Tuberculosis and measles are both airborne diseases whose spread was curtailed due to vaccinations.

The latest interest was triggered by the anthrax scare in 2001, as well as smallpox and SARS, he said. It takes six to nine months to develop a vaccine, Milton said.

"In the meantime," he added, "the goal is to clean the air.''