Rock Hill High School graduate Johnna Frierson contributed to a research article published in Science magazine that examined how bacteria influences intestinal viruses.
Science is the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The competition for scientists to get published in the magazine is intense; out of the more than 12,000 submissions each year, less than 8 percent are accepted, according to www.sciencemag.org.
The October article reported that although it is commonly thought that a body's cells work to fight off viruses, research by eight scientists who contributed to the article showed the natural bacteria that live in our intestines and regulate digestion may actually help some viruses take hold.
Before, the influence of bacteria on intestinal viruses was "largely unknown," Frierson said.
Never miss a local story.
A study focused on the role of intestinal bacteria in mice who were infected with polio, a virus that spreads through the body via the intestines. One group of mice was given antibiotics to clear their intestinal germs and the other was not. Both were given polio; twice as many mice with natural bacteria died as antibiotic-treated mice, according to the article.
"When the mice were again exposed to bacteria, however, the ability of the polio to replicate and infect their bodies returned," according to a CBS News article that featured the study.
Scientists found that polio "hitched a ride" onto fat and carbohydrates on the surface of intestinal bacteria to stabilize itself and affect cells more efficiently, Frierson said.
The next question was: do these findings hold true for any other viruses? That's where Frierson's specific part in the paper came in. In the Dermondy lab at Vanderbilt University, she studied the reovirus, another virus which infects the intestine. Frierson's research found that the reovirus behaved in the same way as polio - without the bacteria, the reovirus caused less severe disease, she said.
Although this research adds to our understanding of viruses, taking enough enough antibiotics to clear out natural bacteria is not the answer, Frierson said. Although viruses may be using some of our cells against us, natural intestinal bacteria still do more good than harm by breaking down food and defending against bad bacteria, she said.
"One of the main challenges in trying to treat viruses is that they exploit what our body naturally does," Frierson said. "We do have some treatments that work well, but the viruses can adapt."
For example, although there are vaccines for the flu, a respiratory virus, by the next year the virus has already mutated, and you have to get another shot, she said.
Frierson, who has worked as head teaching assistant at Vanderbilt in a microbiology lab for first-year medical school students, said that polio and reovirus were chosen for experimentation because they have well-defined characteristics and are easy for scientists to make mutations to.
Being published was exciting, Frierson said. Scientists often build on each other's research. "It's really rewarding to know that I contributed to that process," she said. Frierson has since had the opportunity to work with scientists all over the world, as well as travel to Italy and Canada to talk about her research.
Getting published "aligns with what she's been doing for years," said her mother, McKeeta Allen.
Frierson entered the International Baccalaureate program at Rock Hill High, where she took biology and really enjoyed it, Allen said.
"When I was in high school, I didn't see myself coming this far," Frierson said.