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OSU study examines effects of flu, genetic mutation on heart health

Special to the Legal News

Published: September 19, 2019

Results of a new Ohio State University study may aid in treatment of flu patients who develop life-threatening heart problems, despite having an otherwise healthy heart.

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found a link between a genetic mutation, flu and heart irregularities in lab mice.

Mutation of the gene responsible for making a protein critical to human immune response is known to increase the risk of flu hospitalizations and deaths in people, according to the study's author, OSU assistant professor of microbial infection and immunity Jacob Yount.

"By knocking out this gene in mice, and infecting them with various strains of flu, we were able to show that this gene's absence increases the chances of heart abnormalities - decreased heart rate and irregular heartbeat - and death," Yount said. "There's been no known link between this gene and flu-related heart complications until now."

Yount has been interested IFITM3 gene for quite some time and was curious about its role in severe flu - specifically how it might make people sicker and if it was related to heart problems, particularly in those with no previous cardiovascular disease.

"Flu can exacerbate underlying heart disease, but it can also affect the hearts of people who are otherwise healthy, typically in cases where people are so sick with the flu that they've been hospitalized," said Yount.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 8 percent of U.S. residents are sickened with flu each year, with children and older adults the most vulnerable. Depending on the severity of the flu viruses circulating in a given season, an estimated 12,000 to 79,000 people are expected to die each year from flu complications.

"A lot of people have assumed that systemic inflammation from the infection stresses or harms the heart, but this new finding suggests that some people may be genetically predisposed to these complications," Yount said.

Mutations aren't uncommon; previous research has determined about 20 percent of Chinese people and about 4 percent of people of European ancestry have IFITM3 mutations, he added.

Yount's lab is now working on testing experimental therapies in mice.

Research also found a possible explanation for the connections between the gene, flu and heart abnormalities: fibrosis, the buildup of collagen in tissue.

"Too much of this collagen can cause 'bumps in the road' that could disrupt the electrical flow of the heart that could explain the erratic heart rhythms we saw in this experiment," Yount said.

Other Ohio State researchers who worked on the study are Adam Kenney, Temet McMichael, Alexander Imas, Nicholas Chesarino, Lizhi Zhang, Lisa Dorn, Qian Wu, Omar Alfaour, Foued Amari, Min Chen, Ashley Zani, Mahesh Chemudupati, Federica Accornero, Vincenzo Coppola and Murugesan Rajaram.

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