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Scary study: Selenium deficiency causes flu virus to mutate into more dangerous forms

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL -- Influenza virus that has been passed through mice deficient in the trace nutrient selenium mutates and emerges from the mice more virulent than before, a new study shows. While the research was limited to rodents, it's likely that something similar happens in humans deficient in selenium and, possibly, in other nutrients, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scientists say. That's because humans and mice are so similar biologically, and the mice were infected with a human influenza virus.

A report on the discovery appears in the June 8 issue of the FASEB Journal, a scientific journal published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Authors include Dr. Melinda A. Beck, associate professor of pediatrics and nutrition at the UNC schools of medicine and public health, and Heather K. Nelson, a doctoral student in nutrition at UNC. Dr. Orville A. Levander, a research chemist with the Agricultural Research Service's Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, who specializes in selenium, also contributed to the study.

In April, the scientists reported discovering that inadequate intake of selenium boosts damage caused by influenza viruses.

"We believe our latest findings are both important and potentially disturbing because they suggest nutritional deficiencies can promote epidemics in a way not appreciated before," Beck said. "Here we looked at flu virus because it hospitalizes more than 100,000 people each year in the United States alone. But what we found conceivably could be true for any RNA virus -- cold virus, AIDS virus and Ebola virus."

She and Nelson worked with colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Nestle Research Center in Switzerland. They fed groups of mice either selenium-deficient or normal diets. Later, they exposed both groups to a mild strain of human influenza virus known as Influenza A Bangkok. Rodents consuming too
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Contact: David Williamson
David_Williamson@unc.edu
919-962-8596
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
7-Jun-2001


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