Investigators at the University of Melbourne say they’ve found a genetic marker predictive of greater susceptibility to a new influenza (H7N9) strain circulating in China. The discovery affords science the ability now to glimpse the future of an epidemiological outbreak, similar to the authoritarian government’s time-reversing capability in the film Minority Report.

Katherine Kedzierska, an associate professor with the department of microbiology and immunology, says the new predictive tool would allow clinicians to better manage resources during a crisis. “By using genetic markers to blood and lung samples, we have discovered that there are certain indicators that signal increased susceptibility to this influenza. Higher than normal levels of cytokines, driven by a genetic variant of a protein called IFITM3, tells us that the severe disease is likely,” she said in a statement.

“We call this a Cytokine Storm and people with the defective genetic variant of the protein IFITM3 are more likely to succumb to severe influenza infection.”

But the ability to predict disease susceptibility in the individual would bring enormous import to the allocation of resources across society, said Peter Doherty, a researcher who participated in the work. “We are exploring how genetic sequencing and early identification can allow us to intervene in treating patients before they become too unwell,” he said. “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 Melbourne team continues to work with officials at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center in China. This spring, the new influenza strain prompted 132 human infections with 44 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Notably, most human cases developed in the month of April, tapering off in May, epidemiologists found.

“Currently, there are no licensed vaccines against H7 subtype viruses. Vaccination remains the optimal method for protection of individuals against influenza,” CDC officials write online. “Optimal efficacy is provided by influenza vaccines containing virus antigen well-matched to the viruses causing disease.”

The disease strain, a novel glycoprotein previously not found in human diseases, would likely encounter no antibodies in the human host — suggesting the urgency of continual monitoring by national and international health authorities.

Source: Zhongfang W, Zhang A, Wan Y et al. Early Hypercytokinemia Is Associated With Interferon-Induced Transmembrane Protein-3 Dysfunction And Predictive Of Fatal H7N9 Infection. PNAS. 2013.