Driven to find out why otherwise healthy patients were seriously ill with swine flu in 2009, Associate Professor Benjamin Tang made two breakthroughs in influenza research.
“Healthy people in the prime of their lives were ending up in our intensive care unit with the flu. It didn’t make sense and it inspired us to look deeper, to look for the mechanism that triggers mild flu to suddenly become severe and potentially deadly,” says Ben, who is also an intensivist at Nepean Hospital.
That search led Ben’s group to invent and, now hold international patents on the High-risk Influenza Screen Test (HIST) which measures ‘an early warning signal’ released by the patient’s body into their blood to ‘kick start’ the immune system’s fight against the infection.
The test needs only a single drop of blood and a few hours to predict, with 91 percent accuracy, which influenza patients will develop potentially deadly secondary infections, such as pneumonia.
Ben also led an international study which has found a possible explanation why healthy people sometimes die from the flu.
Key immune cells, called neutrophils, drive an ‘over-reaction’ in some patients’ immune systems which damages their lungs causing breathing difficulty.
“Blood oxygen levels drop dangerously and sadly, in some cases, causes respiratory failure and death,” says Ben.
The discovery identifies a new pathway for treatments to be developed to tame the immune system, reduce the collateral damage caused by the body’s defences against the flu virus and save lives