SCIENCE

Researchers Created A Machine That Pukes... For Science, Of Course

"This machine may seem odd, but it’s helping us understand a disease that affects millions of people."

It's a study that's going viral... in every sense. 

Researchers at North Carolina State University and Wake Forest University have created a machine that vomits to help show how norovirus spreads. 

That's a fast-moving infection known for causing vomiting and diarrhea, and which can be severe and even deadly. 

The new device is designed to help researchers better understand how the infection spreads when someone throws up. More importantly, the vomit machine shows how much of the virus becomes aerosolized and moves through the air, landing on nearby people and surfaces.

The puking apparatus features a small face (about one-quarter the size of a normal human face) inside a plexiglass box connected to a simulated esophagus and stomach. 

As Grace Tung-Thompson, a recent Ph.D. graduate fromNorth Carolina State University and lead author of the study demonstrates in the video above, a turn of a lever causes the little face to puke, with researchers able to control the volume, viscosity and pressure to simulate different degrees of hurling.  

Instead of real vomit, the researchers used vanilla Jell-O in their study. And instead of actual norovirus, they used a similar virus called bacteriophage MS2 that doesn't cause illness. 

According to the study, published in the journal PLOS One, just 0.02 percent of the virus becomes aerosolized -- but that's more than enough to spread the disease and make people sick. 

“When one person vomits, the aerosolized virus particles can get into another person’s mouth and, if swallowed, can lead to infection,” Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences at NC State and co-author of the study said in a news release. 

"[T]hose airborne particles could also land on nearby surfaces like tables and door handles, causing environmental contamination," she said. "And norovirus can hang around for weeks, so anyone that touches that table and then puts their hand to their mouth could be at risk for infection."

The researchers hope to next study how long the particles remain in the air, and how far they can spread. 

Norovirus is sometimes referred to as the "cruise ship virus" as there have been a number of outbreaks at sea. The closed environment of ships allows the infection to spread rapidly.

The virus is also known to be passed around in healthcare facilities, catered events, hotels, schools and other places where people are in close contact with each other. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus causes some 20 million infections per year, and contributes to between 56,000 and 71,000 hospitalizations annually. The virus also causes up to 800 deaths yearly in the United States.

The researchers wrote that their study can be used to help create better strategies to slow or stop the spread of the virus. 

"This machine may seem odd, but it’s helping us understand a disease that affects millions of people," Jaykus told NC State News. "This is work that can help us prevent or contain the spread of norovirus -- and there’s nothing odd about that."

 

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