Once upon a time, canaries were used regularly in coal mining as an early-warning system. That’s because toxic gases like methane or carbon monoxide would kill the bird before they would affect human miners. A quick glance at the canary for signs of distress would therefore be enough to indicate that conditions were either safe or unsafe.
Jump forward to 2017, and researchers in Germany have developed a transgenic mouse for carrying out a not dissimilar task — only this time the aim is to identify new flu virus strains with the potential to cause a global pandemic.
In order for viruses from the animal population (remember swine and bird flu?) to cross over to humans, influenza strains must mutate to get around the human immune system. In their study, the German scientists were able to breed mice that show human MxA, an important protein in the human immune system. As a result, the generically-modified mice were able to be made susceptible to flu viruses that can be caught by people.
“Whenever a new strain of flu pops up, it has its genome sequenced, which allows researchers to predict whether it’s dangerous or not,” Professor Dr. Peter Stäheli, one of the co-authors of the study, told Digital Trends. “But it’s not always easy to do this, which is why we propose that we take these candidate viruses that should be evaluated for risk and experimentally infect the mice we have been breeding to see whether or not they induce disease.”
From a research perspective, inducing mice to react to human influenza strains allows the scientists on the project to understand more about the ways immune systems fight viruses.
However, the goal is also to use the information to be able to more accurately alert health organizations of influenza strains they should be concerned about. Considering that the famous flu pandemic of 1918 killed between 50 million and 100 million people, this is clearly an important ambition.
“It’s difficult to say exactly what should be done with such information,” Stäheli continued. “Our job is to say whether or not these virus strains are something we should be worried about. There are then health agencie,s which will try to come up with a solution to prepare for something which could become a new pandemic. I can’t predict exactly what they’ll do, but risk assessment is a very important step. It’s an additional help to create a quick assessment of potential problems with particular virus strains.”