Chaotic flu season a boon for Northwestern researchers

Amid runny noses and hacking coughs, a team of Northwestern medical researchers has found a silver lining.

"Last flu season was weak, but this one has been good for us," said Dr. Pedro Avila, who is leading a study to figure out why some cases are more serious than others.


For example, why is the virus deadly for one person but a minor inconvenience for another person who fits the same profile? "We still do not fully understand" the answer to that question, Avila said in a statement.

The study is part of a multiyear effort that Avila hopes will yield meaningful results after this flu season, which began about a month earlier than usual and remains at epidemic levels across the country.

His team of researchers is seeking adults younger than 60 who don't smoke and have had flulike symptoms for less than week. For Avila, that last point could be decisive: How the body responds within the first few days usually foreshadows how serious the illness will be.

The average participant comes in for a nasal sample once at the start of a six-week period and once at the end of it. Each visit takes no longer than two hours and pays $50. The lab will even cover transportation costs.

As of Tuesday morning, Avila said he had seen about a third of the ideal number of participants. "More would be better," he added.

Still, Avila said it hasn't been difficult finding participants. He doesn't need to look far: Northwestern Memorial Hospital has seen more than 400 cases of the flu as of Feb. 2, nearly seven times the number of flu patients it handled all of last season, spokeswoman Lindsey Fox said.

Anyone interested in taking part in the study should contact Avila at 312-695-6518 or