Dr. Eli Nix is determined to find out why a bacterium named for the flu seems to affect First Nations people more than others and hopes to create a vaccine to fight it.
Nix’s nemesis is the bacteria Haemophilus Influenzae Type A, which can infect the blood. It has been linked to various health issues, from frequent ear infections in children to pneumonia in elders and even to meningitis. In extreme cases, such problems can cause death or permanent disability like deafness or mental retardation.
“We are studying the antibodies from volunteers to determine the level of natural immunity against the bacteria possessed by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from our region,” Nix said. “We hope to lay the groundwork for the development of a vaccine.”
The family of Haemophilus Influenzae bacteria was named before a difference was recognized between bacteria and viruses. “It sounds like an influenza, but it was named in the late 1800s, before we knew about viruses. They thought it was the cause of influenza.”
Decades ago, a vaccine was developed for the Type B of this bacteria, considered the more dangerous of the six sero-types identified. The vaccine knocked out that strain, but concern was that might open the door for other strains. “Overall, the fear that other strains would emerge hasn’t been realized, except in certain populations,” Nix said.
When Nix started at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) in Thunder Bay three years ago, his advisor, Dr. Marina Ulanova, already was studying Haemophilus Influenzae Type A.
Historically, Northwestern Ontario had higher rates of the Type A infection than the rest of Canada. While 5 per 100,000 people was typical for most of Canada, this region had rates as high as 23.2 per 100,000 in 2006 and 15.5 in 2007. However, it wasn’t until Ulanova’s research that specific affected ethnicities were identified.
“What she found was surprising. In our region of northwestern Ontario, there is a fairly high rate; it was almost exclusively First Nations affected, and there was no information why.”
Infections were also particularly noted among Alaskan Indians and Inuit of the Canadian far north.
“My band funded my education, so I’m really happy that I’m working with First Nations people,” said Nix, whose heritage is with the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn.
A post-doctoral fellow at Lakehead University’s NOSM, Nix was awarded a two-year, $92,000 Canadian Institutes of Health Research Fellowship for his research.
In congratulating Nix on receiving the highly competitive funding last year, Dr. Greg Ross, NOSM’s associate dean of research, also acknowledged “his commitment to undertaking research with Aboriginal communities in a way which is culturally competent and appropriate.”
Nix’s heritage helps to build trust in the remote communities.
“I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to grow up in a rural reserve in northern Canada,” said Nix, who was born in Thunder Bay. “But because of my background, I’m more aware of the historical issues, especially surrounding research. We’re not guinea pigs. The First Nations group is not just somebody we’re studying; we’re partners. They get the raw data. It’s not just we show up, take samples and disappear.”
Nix’s research involves taking blood samples from volunteers to track natural antibodies to the bacteria.
One might think higher infection rates mean First Nations people are more vulnerable to this bacteria, Nix said, “but we found the opposite. … It was nice to be able to report to people that they actually, overall, had more potent antibodies.”
Having more potent antibodies might result from more people carrying the bacteria, which can live in the nose – specifically the nasopharynx – or the back of the throat of a healthy person without causing a problem.
“If you’re healthy and you’re a carrier that allows the potential for you to spread the bacteria to somebody who’s health compromised.”
Nix believes the bacteria might also gain a stronger foothold in some communities because of living conditions – mold in homes, lack of clean drinking water and other health issues. “My theory now is that the bacteria just happen to be circulating among some populations, among certain areas.”
One goal for Nix is a vaccine against Type A that is as effective as the one against Type B, which reduced infections by more than 90 percent. Partners in the project include the National Research Council of Canada and the National Microbiology Laboratory of Canada.
“We’re actually working to make a vaccine. No company is going to make a vaccine like this – they aren’t going to make money on it.”
The coalition gives Nix hope. “All of these stakeholders have come together. They’ve recognized the problem, and when I first started they didn’t. … Four years down the road, we might be able to do something useful.”