12/26/2013 01:05 pm ET

A Genetic Marker Could Determine Who Is Most Likely To Get Sick With The Flu

Paul Bradbury via Getty Images

While some people seem to shake off the flu with a couple of days of rest and a good night's sleep, others are laid up for weeks or even hospitalized with complicated symptoms. Now, researchers publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may have a clue as to why -- at least in the instance of an emerging flu strain in China, the H7N9 virus.

Using blood and lung samples, a team led by Katherine Kedzierska, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Melbourne, found genetic markers that may indicate increased susceptibility to H7N9.

"Higher than normal levels of cytokines, driven by a genetic variant of a protein called IFITM3, tells us that the severe disease is likely," Kedzierska said in a statement.

The research may help doctors screen for more vulnerable flu patients in the future.

"We are exploring how genetic sequencing and early identification can allow us to intervene in treating patients before they become too unwell," explained lead author, Dr. Peter Doherty, a Nobel laureate in the field of medicine for his co-discovery of how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells. "As new cases of influenza emerge in the Northern Hemisphere, we try to keep a season ahead and prepare to protect the most vulnerable in our community."

The team conducted the research in collaboration with Jianqing Xu of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center.