(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – As many as 80,000 Americans die after contracting the flu each year, but the reasons otherwise healthy people develop life-threatening heart complications have been largely unknown. Now, a new study by researchers at The Ohio State University College of Medicine links heart issues related to the flu with a common genetic mutation. For those who have it, the immune system doesn’t effectively produce a certain protein critical to fighting the flu.
“This protein inhibits viruses from infecting our cells and prevents the flu from entering organs such as the heart and lungs,” said Jacob Yount, PhD, lead author of the study and assistant professor of microbial infection and immunity at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
Although this gene mutation is known to increase the risk of flu hospitalizations and deaths, the study was the first to find the flu was actually present in the hearts of mice without the gene. Those mice were more likely to have heart abnormalities and fail to recover after being infected with the flu.
“What we saw in the mice is that when the virus disseminates to the heart, it causes fibrosis, which is a normal repair process of the heart. However, if there’s too much fibrosis, it can disrupt the electrical activity of the heart,” Yount said.
In the future, knowing that a patient has this genetic defect may help doctors better tailor their care. “People’s bodies respond differently to infections,” said Dr. Eric Adkins, associate professor of emergency medicine and critical care at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Research like this may someday allow us to personalize healthcare and determine the best course of action to decrease the severity and duration of each patient’s illness based on their genetic makeup.”
Until researchers are able to more easily identify those at risk and develop new treatments to prevent or reverse fibrosis in the heart, the best way to avoid these dangerous complications is to get the flu shot each year as soon as possible.