Why this family heirloom could reveal how 1918 flu pandemic spread

Human tissue slides passed down to descendants of a British military physician and shared with researchers could help unearth new information about the 1918 Spanish flu, reports STAT.

The hunt for the samples started after Michael Worobey, PhD, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tucson-based University of Arizona, discovered a report written by World War I British military physician and pathologist William Rolland in 1917 — a year before the Spanish flu outbreak occurred. The report detailed a fatal respiratory illness that was infecting soldiers. 

Dr. Worobey used the internet to hunt down William Rolland's descendants and see if any tissue samples existed from the physician's century-old research. This search led him to Dr. Jim Cox, a retired family medicine physician in England who is married to William Rolland's granddaughter. Dr. Cox had an entire collection of human tissue slides he was willing to lend Dr. Worobey.

"I almost fell out of my chair, for real," Dr. Worobey told STAT. "I actually did cry real tears."

Dr. Worobey has a theory the pandemic flu was infecting people before the 1918 outbreak. In a quest for answers about the pandemic's origin and how it spread, Dr. Worobey and his team will take partial specimens from the tissue slides for analysis.

"It would be really interesting to me if this horrible virus was really circulating under the radar for so long before the fall of 1918 when it really had its peak effects," he told STAT. "It would tell us that there's a whole lot we have to learn about the forces that keep pandemic viruses simmering at a low level before they explode."

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