Monday, December 15, 2014

Johan Hultin

Remember him? He’s the pathologist who discovered tissues containing the 1918 influenza virus, which allowed the virus to be sequenced for the first time. Bob talked about him a bit in class, but Johan Hultin’s story is so darn cool I thought I’d look into it a little bit more.

Hultin was taking a break from Swedish medical school and studying microbiology at the University of Iowa and a professor happened to make a passing remark that intact samples from the 1918 flu still exited in frozen in bodies in the Artic. Hultin was looking for a dissertation topic and proposed that he try to find the virus so it could be used to make a vaccine. (I’m not sure the logic of trying to use an old strain to make a vaccine against a new strain, but maybe this was before some newfangled techniques and it was the best they could do.)

In any case, in native groups in the Alaska, death rates from this outbreak virtually wiped out small villages. Johan Hultin’s enthusiasm was probably fueled by the fact that he spent a summer in Alaska with a paleontologist and believed that driving up the newly opened Alaska Highway, “was itself a great adventure.”

 In order to establish where the mass graves were, he wrote to a few missionaries. They sent him copies of record books in Norwegian. Being Swedish, he luckily happened to be able to read Norwegian.

Off Johan went to Alaska, to a village now called Brevig Mission, to be specific. The villagers let him excavate. Once he got the samples, he had to quickly get them into the lab. A storm made the bay almost impassable and dry ice brought to refrigerate the samples had evaporated. Johan and his small team used carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher to make dry ice and with local help, they managed to find an overland route.

Despite this extraordinary effort, Johan’s first attempt was unsuccessful. He concluded that there was no live virus in the corpses. He planned to write about the failed attempt for his thesis, but he was accepted into the medical school at the University of Iowa and never ended up writing it.

It turns out that the Army was also trying to get the Spanish flu out of the ice, but found only skeletons in their original excavation site. Tauenberger, the civilian scientists who heads the microbiology division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, wondered whether it’d be possible to get the Spanish flu out.  He was able piece together a gene called NS from 78 soldiers and published a report. Hultin happened to read the report and offered to bring Tauenberger frozen samples from Alaska with the flu.

Hultin returned to Brevig Mission. The local people were worried about releasing bad spirits and were relucantat to allow him to dig. Eventually, someone recalled that they had been given Christian burials, which was supposed to have sufficiently driven the bad spirits away, so they gave Hultin the go ahead.

Hultin and his crew found a body he had missed the first time, a fat woman in her thirties. The fat apparently helped insulate her body from the brief thaws. In fact, the material that Hultin brought back was more fragmented than the Tauenberger’s soldiers. However, Hultin gave him all the material he needed and the virus was sequenced 8 years later.


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