Study Finds Possible Explanation for Dangerous Heart Complications in Flu Patients

Common gene mutation allows flu virus to infect the heart

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(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.

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Jacob Yount conducts lab research at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Yount led a new study that links heart complications from the flu with a common gene mutation.

As a healthy 23-year-old, Jen Ludwin suffered life-threatening flu complications that resulted in more than 25 surgeries, including amputations of her fingers and feet.

Dr. Eric Adkins (right) collaborates with Dr. Farhad Aziz and Hannah Stapleton in the emergency department at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Adkins says new research may one day help doctors predict which patients may develop complications from the flu.

Jen Ludwin walks her dog near her home in Dublin, Ohio. Jen was a healthy 23-year-old when she developed a severe infection from the flu that nearly took her life.

Jacob Yount led a study at The Ohio State University College of Medicine that is the first to link heart complications from the flu to a common gene mutation. The research may help develop ways to identify those at risk and provide better care for flu patients.