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New research study could lead to better flu virus protection for warfighters, public

  • Published
  • By Jeremy Dunn

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – The United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, or USAFSAM, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is collaborating with Georgia Tech and the Georgia Tech Research Institute, or GTRI, on a new research project to design strains of probiotic bacteria that can provide health benefits to stimulate immune recognition of influenza.  

Developing more effective methods to combat influenza could reduce impacts on military readiness and training from outbreaks and augment vaccine efforts to increase force health protection capabilities. 

The two-year research project will assess if influenza proteins can be added to common bacteria found in the human gut microbiome, which could stimulate a greater immune cell response against the flu virus.  

“The idea is we can help the body recognize these pathogens,” said Richard Agans, senior research biologist at USAFSAM. “Instead of treating the symptoms, say with [an over-the-counter decongestant], you might be able to treat it with something like this to aid in the development of an immune response.” 

The flu can kill as many as 52,000 people and can lead to hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations annually. If the project proves successful, it could one day lead to the development of a capsule that can boost the effectiveness of flu vaccines, according to a press release from GTRI.  

“The ultimate goal of where this could lead is augmentation of vaccine efforts where we can, but a potential alternative where necessary,” said Agans. “We could potentially design and have a prophylactic [to prevent illness] that might be able to help reduce the severity of cases.” 

While the results that come out of the research project could eventually lead to treatments that temporarily replace flu vaccines in adverse environments where cold chain supply infrastructure is limited or nonexistent, the study intends to augment and strengthen the body’s resistance to influenza proactively rather than as a replacement for flu vaccines or as a post-infection treatment. 

“It is likely never going to be a replacement for the flu vaccine, given how vaccines work versus how our bodies handles bacteria,” said Agans. “I think it’s very much more of a prophylactic, but it’s very novel. We just don’t know yet.” 

Initial, exploratory research projects allow scientists and researchers opportunities to interrogate nature and expand knowledge about subjects like additional avenues to fight the flu virus and other respiratory diseases for their own sake. Exploratory research in this and other subjects can lead to significant discoveries that can benefit warfighters and the public at large along with broadening understanding of these subjects. 

According to Agans, the idea originated with him and a colleague while at Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton. When he joined USAFSAM, the idea was posited to the Minority Leaders - Research Collaboration Program, or ML-RCP, where researchers at Georgia Tech (Brian Hammer) and GTRI (Mike Farrell) submitted a proposal that fit USAFSAM requirements.  

Georgia Tech and GTRI will work with Kennesaw State University graduate student Katrin V. Lancaster and other researchers to develop the proof-of-concept project, according to GTRI’s press release. 

“Working with AFRL and ML-RCP has been excellent,” said Lancaster. “Dr. Agans, Dr. Farrell and Dr. Hammer have been excellent sources of information and provided great mentorship support for me.” 

Lancaster interviewed for the research project after submitting her graduate application. Her background and experience working in a commercial DNA laboratory convinced Dr. Hammer that she would be a beneficial to the project. 

“I was excited when he mentioned that this project was a collaboration with the military,” Lancaster said. “Both of my parents served in the U.S. military, and it feels good to be participating in a project that aims to advance the health and well-being of military personnel.” 

The study offers an opportunity to explore a new approach to microbiology and provides an opportunity to collaborate with the federal government, according to Lancaster. 

“We’re treating this as a collaboration,” said Agans. “Given the ultimate goal of where this could lead, this is why we want to have this as a collaboration rather than a service, to become the foundation for something bigger.” 

If this approach works with influenza, the combination of probiotic and injection might also be helpful for augmenting vaccines and providing increased protection against other respiratory viruses. Future development may even be expanded to aid in other areas that the DOD is currently pursuing, such as treatments that fortify against excessive fatigue and stress, both of which can adversely affect the body’s immune system and overall performance. 

“This project is the development of a toolbox that we can apply across the vast range of bacteria to do what we want them to,” said Agans. “I would see the next steps as integrating that toolbox into other known organisms that are beneficial and seeing if we can increase their benefit with something like this.” 

The study is still in the early stages as the team conducts initial research, reviews the existing literature and performs bacterial manipulation techniques. Despite the potential challenges, influenza was chosen as the subject of the project because of the number of vaccines that currently exist for the virus, and because it has been studied so thoroughly over the years. 

“Even though this project will be challenging, I am excited to be a part of it,” said Lancaster. 

USAFSAM is part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing. 

About AFRL 

The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit