01/13/2017 01:18 EST | Updated 01/13/2017 01:19 EST

The Flu May Be Trickier Than We Thought

flu season

It's the middle of flu season and as expected, the virus is making its way through Canada. Thousands of people are struggling with the coughs, fever, and fatigue and looking for ways to deal with the weeks of suffering. Some will choose natural remedies, such as chicken soup and vitamin D, while others will be forced to seek medical attention and possibly a prescription for antivirals.

Regardless of the person, the process of the infection at the cellular level is pretty much the same. The virus gets into the lungs and finds a cell to invade. Once inside, a hijacking occurs such that the usual cellular activities are stopped and more viruses are produced. Eventually, these new viral entities push out from the cell taking with them a nice, fresh covering of fat, known as an envelope.

If all goes according to plan, the virus' stay is short-lived and within a week, the tides turn.

As this happens, the immune system scrambles to produce antibodies and killer cells to fight the virus. Infected cells are killed as new viruses are arrested and destroyed. Adding in an antiviral can help the situation by blocking the ability of the virus to break free of the doomed cell making it easier to kill.

If all goes according to plan, the virus' stay is short-lived and within a week, the tides turn. The immune system overwhelms the virus, eventually clearing the invasion. It may take another few weeks depending on the health of the individual but most people fully recover and can get back to normal life.

For over a century, this is how flu infection has been believed to occur. Yet, now, thanks to a group of American researchers, that may change. They recently have shown a new means by which flu can survive and spread. The results suggest the virus may be able to stick around longer than we would like thanks to a crafty characteristic best described as tunnelling.

flu season

Back in 2007, researchers looking at how human cells communicate discovered the presence of small channels connecting cells. Called tunneling nanotubes, these structures allowed cells to exchange molecules without having to worry about the extracellular environment. Perhaps more importantly, larger entities in the cell, such as organelles, could also be transported from one cell to another. For the authors of the current study, this free-flowing channel appeared to offer a possible escape pathway for a virus.

The group conducted their experiments in the lab using cells known to be infected by the flu virus. Their first order of business was to show the cells could indeed form these tunneling nanotubes and transfer organelles. Using various forms of microscopy, they were able to observe the formation of the tubes and the sharing of mitochondria, which are some of the largest structures in the cell.

With these requirements met, the next stage was to infect the cells and see whether the virus could take advantage of the tubes. It wasn't long before the viruses were observed moving from one cell to another. Both genetic material and proteins were shared meaning the recipient cell was in essence, doomed.

From a purely logistic perspective, these results showed the virus had a new means to spread without having to go through the process of leaving one cell and entering another. Not only would this reduce the energy required to perform these steps, but also the time needed to develop a serious infection would shorten.

This could eventually lead to combination therapy to increase the chances of a successful recovery.

But the team wasn't done. They wanted to find out if this mode of transport was also helping the virus escape the various tools used by the immune system and medicine. To do this, the researchers attempted to stop infection spread by using antibodies to the virus and an antiviral drug.

The results were dramatic. As expected, no viruses were spread through the extracellular environment. Yet, thanks to those nanotubes, the virus managed to tunnel its way into uninfected cells. Despite using the most effective means to stop the virus, it had managed to find a way to continue the invasion.

For the authors, this discovery offers a combination of good and bad news. Although they have shown flu has yet another way to evade combat and ensure an infection can continue, they have also figured out how this may be prevented. By using already available chemicals known to prevent the formation of these nanotubes, they could halt the spread of the virus. This could eventually lead to combination therapy to increase the chances of a successful recovery. While this may be years down the road, the potential for an even better treatment is definitely within sight.

Until then, the best way to ensure flu doesn't take advantage of these tunneling nanotubes is quite simply to avoid becoming infected with the virus. In light of the current situation in Canada, there is no better time to strengthen adherence to hygiene and to ensure proper social distancing is in place. Moreover, the current flu vaccine is a very good match for the strains circulating right now and can help keep you safe from those weeks of needless suffering.

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