I have spent the last fortnight voluntarily imprisoned in a research centre in Cambridge, along with 40 other human guinea pigs, to take part in a medical trial investigating flu transmission.
Why? I hear you ask, would you agree to spend two weeks locked up with strangers in a hospital ward, especially when you are forbidden to enjoy the pleasures of a cigarette, or even a late night tipple to help you cope with your plastic bed-sheets and the surround-sound snoring of your comrades? Well… Obviously we all signed up to ‘flucamp’ (as it is affectionately known) so that we could play our part in advancing medical science, but the big wad of cash offered to us was a further incentive.
The flu virus can be transmitted from an infected person through the droplets released in a cough, sneeze or even a breath. It is known that direct contact with these droplets can contaminate you, whether it’s your first kiss with a new sexy lover, or a cough in the face from a prick on the bus. But scientists are still unsure if flu can be transmitted through virus-laden aerosols, these are tiny droplets (1-4 micron diameter) that can become suspended in the air, meaning they can travel further than large snot-droplets and also be inhaled when wearing certain masks.
The purpose of the study is to discover just how important aerosol transmission is. This could resolve the on-going debate of which type of protection healthcare workers should use: a surgical mask (costing pennies) or a respirator (costing pounds).
We all arrived at Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridgeshire (famous for creating the world’s first test-tube baby) and were ushered into our hospital style rooms, each containing eight beds. The first 4 days I spent gossiping with my new room-mates and playing on the internet, while the nurses closely monitored our health to see if we were really the fiddle-fit specimens of humankind that we claimed to be. This meant routine urine samples, blood tests, ECGs, throat and nasal swabs. The nasal swab is nothing to be sniffed at (pardon the pun), a long cotton bud is inserted so far up your nose that you instinctively cry and probably have a couple of childhood memories erased.
The experiment begins. 20 of us were randomly selected to be flu ‘donors,’ and were taken away to be given nose drops which contained a form of synthetic influenza. The remaining 20 ‘recipients’ where then split into two groups. 10 recipients were given face masks, that resembled flimsy plastic welder’s screens, as these would stop large fluey droplets, but not aerosols. These people were also given hand-wash, to prevent infection through contact. The other 10 recipients were the control group, so were given no protection. I was lucky enough to be one of the mask-wearing recipients, see picture.
We were then split up into groups, consisting of four donors, two masked recipients and two control recipients, to spend 15 hours a day together for the next four days in ‘exposure rooms’. These small rooms were kept at 20C, because in cold dry rooms, flu stays alive and in the air longer. We were filmed constantly while in the rooms and spent our time playing “articulate”, watching films and speculating on how much this whole study would cost (turned out to be £4 million and funded by the World Health Organisation.)
Scientists routinely entered the exposure room, to swab our board games and magazines for signs of flu, and take readings from the flu detection gizmo, which hummed away in the corner of the room inhaling the disease ridden air. Those chatty old scientists were delighted to tell me all about the influenza study, and one aspect I found especially fascinating. That daily trauma, the horrific nasal swab, would contain information about which genes are being expressed from our DNA, this is known as epigenetics and it is at the forefront of biology. Apparently, although my genome will remain unchanged throughout my lifetime, parts of its DNA may be silenced at different times in my life depending on outside factors, so different genes will be expressed as environmental conditions, or even my own mood changes!
Psychologists at the University of Nottingham plan to watch the videos of us in our weird big-brotheresque environment, and see if this intense social interaction will create stresses within us, that may influence our epigenetics. Pretty cool, and almost makes the nasal intrusion worthwhile!
After the four days of exposure, a further week of health checks ensued, and I was free to mingle with other mask-wearing recipient types (now unmasked) as we supped Ribena, compared our nurse-prepared microwave dinners, and discussed what we would do when we got out. I got on majestically with all of the other ‘in-mates’, who were a wonderful array of actors, poets, hipsters and freaks, which meant I actually had quite a lot of fun whilst being locked up. As a scientific researcher myself, I found it extremely interesting to be part of a study from the perspective of a mere data point.
I am sure that you will be overjoyed to know, dearest reader, that your beloved author and hero of this tale never even caught the flu, and returned home with his pockets bulging.
I would normally post the relevant research paper here, but that won’t be available for another couple of years. Although, if you are interested in taking part in a similar study or are just interested in the company that conducted the trials, Retroscreen Virology – follow this link…