Tulane doctor hopes to make medical history with $1.6 million

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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) - At Tulane's School of Medicine, Dr. Betzi Norton hopes to change lives by developing a more effective flu vaccine. After multiple attempts at getting funding, she's now in charge of a $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“You apply quite a number of times, you get rejected, you get sad, you pick yourself back up and you apply again,” says Norton.

A four-year grant will fund salaries, supplies and research with a goal of finding a way to use a specific protein compound to help "rev up" the human immune system.

Norton's team will be continuing research that began in the 1970s.

“Even though we have a vaccine, the flu circulates and causes disease in between 5 percent and 20 percent of Americans each year. If we can improve the vaccine then we might be able to drop the percentage of people who are getting seasonal flu to down to 0 or 1 percent,” says Norton.

At Majoria Drugs in Metairie, thousands of flu shots have been given out this year, and Pharmacist in Charge Al Spitale never tires of answering the question: Can you get the flu, from the flu shot?

“You cannot get sick from the flu shot. If you get sick, it's because you were in an incubation period when you walked into the drugstore,” he says, adding that the vaccine contains a dead virus.

Meanwhile, the team at Tulane has until 2020 to make their mark on the medical world using the new funding.

Dr. Norton says she hopes to have the vaccine formulated by then.

Testing will be done on mice, and then it will be time for another grant.

“Hopefully the next grant would be to start testing this with clinical preparations in human subjects,” says Norton.

Ultimately, creating the new vaccine for people could take 12 to 20 years—and Dr. Norton says even if it takes the full two decades, she would feel lucky.

In the meantime, with more than 150 strains of flu virus, this shot in the arm is something to consider.

AS MENTIONED ON AIR: If you are over 65 and you have not yet had the flu shot, you might be able to get a free vaccine and be part of a separate study also headed by Dr. Norton.

To ask questions about participation, or make an appointment, call 504-988-0200. Walk-in appointments are available most Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., at 1440 Canal Street, Suite 1700.

They are specifically looking for a number of diabetic adults, and adults 65 years or older.