The 'Gesundheit Machine' collects campus cooties in race against a fierce flu

February 9, 2018 by Selena Simmons-Duffin, Npr
Undergraduate Shira Rubin gamely demonstrates the "Gesundheit Machine," which collects samples of virus from the breath that sick students exhale. Rubin helps Dr. Somayeh Youssefi (left) set up the machine before patients use it. (Selena Simmons-Duffin/WAMU)

It's turning out to be a particularly harsh flu season. The epidemic hasn't hit the University of Maryland College Park yet; students just recently returned from winter break. But in the close quarters of dorm rooms and cafeterias and study groups, the flu will come. And when it does, Dr. Don Milton, a professor of environmental health, will be ready and waiting to learn from it.

On a blustery January day, Milton was with undergraduate research assistants Louie Gold and Amara Fox trying to get students to sign up for his new study on how the flu—and other viruses—spread. They had vouchers for the school convenience store, free hot chocolate and handmade signs.

Milton was hoping dozens of students would enroll. And if they should get sick, they would be sent to the clinic at the School of Public Health, just across the street from the dorms.

That very day, a sick did come by, but she didn't make the cut.

"She had some of the right symptoms: cough, little bit of runny nose, but didn't have much of a fever," said Dr. Barbara Albert, who screened her for the study. In other words, they're looking for the people whom everyone else wants to stay away from.

If a student is sick enough, they get sent around the corner, to a room with a crazy-looking, Rube Goldberg-like contraption known as the "Gesundheit Machine."

For half an hour, the student sits in the machine. As they breathe, the machine collects whatever virus they've got from the droplets in the breath they exhale.

The researchers will then use the students' contacts to try to figure out how infections spread from person to person.

"Roommates, study buddies, girlfriends and boyfriends," Milton said. "We're going to swab them every day for a week to see if they get infected."

If they do get infected, researchers will try to pin down if they got the bug from the original subject, or someone else.

"We're going to deep-sequence the genetic code of the agent to see if it was really exactly the same thing," Milton explained. He's aware confirming that your roommate gave you a horrible flu could ruin some perfectly nice roommate relationships, but it's for science.

The fact is, he said, we don't know that much about the mechanics of how bugs spread. He's trying to understand it from every possible angle.

"We're measuring the environment in the rooms, contact, biomarkers from blood, what they're shedding into the air," he said.

All the data is not just for our information, but so we can design spaces to keep infections from spreading too easily, and protect ourselves more effectively.

That's how he and his research staff can be around sick people all the time without getting infected themselves. They all got flu shots, of course, but Milton went further.

"Downstairs where the patients come in, we have upper-room UV to sanitize the air in those rooms," he said. During his last flu study, it worked. "Not a single person on my research team got the flu that year. Even though we saw 156 people, some of whom were shedding up to 10 million copies per half-hour of the virus, none of my people got sick."

He hopes environmental measures like these could be used to fight bugs that are even worse than the flu.

"What about pandemics and what about new infections that come along? How can we defend against those?" Milton asked. "It is possible, even if it's airborne, to protect against it. We just need to understand how it works better."

The information they get from this study could, for example, lead to better ventilation systems that would make it harder for the flu and even more dangerous viruses to spread.

Explore further: Flu may be spread just by breathing, new study shows; coughing and sneezing not required

Related Stories

Flu may be spread just by breathing, new study shows; coughing and sneezing not required

January 18, 2018
It is easier to spread the influenza virus (flu) than previously thought, according to a new University of Maryland-led study released today. People commonly believe that they can catch the flu by exposure to droplets from ...

Maryland researchers study how flu is spread, question direct vs. indirect contact

January 25, 2013
Every flu season, doctors instruct their patients in the basics of respiratory etiquette: To limit spread of the disease, wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough and practice good hygiene.

How to fight the flu this season

January 19, 2018
(HealthDay)—The flu is causing widespread misery across the United States this winter, but the American Lung Association says there are things you can do to avoid being felled by the virus.

Study provides new clues to how flu virus spreads

March 7, 2013
People may more likely be exposed to the flu through airborne virus than previously thought, according to new research from the University of Maryland School of Public Health. The study also found that when flu patients wear ...

Officials: Zika spread through sex by man with no symptoms

August 26, 2016
U.S. health officials on Friday reported the first case of Zika spread through sex by a man with no symptoms of the disease.

Recommended for you

Taking a catnap? Mouse mutation shown to increase need for sleep

September 24, 2018
Sleep is vital for adequate functioning across the animal kingdom, but little is known about the physiological mechanisms that regulate it, or the reasons for natural variation in people's sleep patterns.

Evidence that addictive behaviors have strong links with ancient retroviral infection

September 24, 2018
New research from an international team led by Oxford University's Department of Zoology and the National-Kapodistrian University of Athens, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows ...

New findings on the muscle disease Laing early-onset distal myopathy

September 24, 2018
New avenues are now being opened toward treatment of Laing distal myopathy, a rare disorder that causes atrophy of the muscles in the feet, hands and elsewhere. In a study published in the journal PNAS, researchers have identified ...

Know someone sick? Your own smell might give it away

September 24, 2018
Odors surround us, providing cues about many aspects of personal identity, including health status. Now, research from the Monell Center extends the scope and significance of personal odors as a source of information about ...

Reconstructing healthy liver cells using a nanomaterial-based matrix 

September 24, 2018
NUS pharmaceutical scientists, together with clinicians from the National University Health System (NUHS), have developed a nanomaterial-based hydrogel that encourages amniotic epithelial cells (a type of stem cell) to grow ...

Japanese team creates human oogonia using human stem cells in artificial mouse ovaries

September 21, 2018
A team of researchers with members from several institutions in Japan has successfully generated human oogonia inside of artificial mouse ovaries using human stem cells. In their paper published in the journal Science, the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.