The lungs of a young London woman who died in 1918 may hold the key to understanding the worst flu pandemic in modern history. Scientists believe that the body of 20-year-old Phyllis Burn, one of up to 40 million victims of the scourge, may be well enough preserved to yield cells that will reveal the nature of the virus.
It's rare that tissue samples that old contain intact viral RNA. Until now researchers have recovered only pieces of lung tissue from victims of the 1918 outbreak--and the quality of viral DNA they've yielded has been spotty. But virologist John Oxford of St. Mary's Hospital in London and colleagues are hoping to boost the odds by retrieving a whole lung from Burn, one of 400 flu victims buried in a cemetery in South London. Because Burn is interred in a brick vault with no other bodies, Oxford says she should be the most accessible of 10 bodies interred in alcohol-filled lead coffins, which make for very good conditions for preservation.
The reasons for the extreme severity of the 1918 pandemic remain a mystery. To understand the deadly strain and how it can spread through the body, scientists need more of the viral genome. About half of the genome has been sampled from lung tissue of previously exhumed 1918 flu victims, but scientists have so far found nothing unusual. The availability of a whole lung is "the opportunity we've been looking for," says Oxford, who is hopeful that from these tissues his team will be able to sequence the entire viral genome.
George Brownlee, a professor of pathology at Oxford University, warns that the story still won't be complete until researchers have investigated earlier strains of the 1918 flu as well as samples from other parts of the world. Meanwhile, Oxford--who is waiting for permission to exhume the body--says there are many more cemeteries in London whose denizens may also yield grisly secrets about the 1918 scourge.
Detailed history of 1918 influenza epidemic