Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: Does Human Immunity Change with the Seasons?

Micaela Martinez

It’s an inescapable conclusion from the book of Ecclesiastes that’s become part of popular culture thanks to folk legends Pete Seeger and The Byrds: “To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season.” That’s certainly true of viral outbreaks, from the flu-causing influenza virus peaking each year in the winter to polio outbreaks often rising in the summer. What fascinates Micaela Martinez is, while those seasonal patterns of infection have been recognized for decades, nobody really knows why they occur.

Martinez, an infectious disease ecologist at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, thinks colder weather conditions and the tendency for humans to stay together indoors in winter surely play a role. But she also thinks an important part of the answer might be found in a place most hadn’t thought to look: seasonal changes in the human immune system. Martinez recently received an NIH Director’s 2016 Early Independence Award to explore fluctuations in the body’s biological rhythms over the course of the year and their potential influence on our health.

Martinez has teamed with researchers at the University of Surrey, England, who specialize in the study of biological rhythms, including sleep. With the help of their state-of-the-art facility, Martinez will study 12 people during each of the four seasons. During each visit, study participants will spend three days in the lab under carefully controlled conditions. Using a specially-designed catheter, Martinez will collect blood samples each hour, even while participants are asleep. With those blood samples in hand, Martinez will look for telltale changes in hormone levels, gene expression, and immune activity that predictably follow with the seasons.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.