Sanger Institute researcher collaborates on story of love and flu

Radio play by Sarah Woods and Paul Kellam to air on BBC Radio 4

A radio drama about love and flu produced in collaboration with Professor Paul Kellam, a member of Faculty at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, starts on Radio 4 on Monday 27 October.

My Life with Flu is a five-part radio drama that follows Jill and David, whose relationship is just blossoming in 1969 as the Hong Kong flu emerges. Each episode follows the love and life story as it develops over decades, while also tracking the natural history of the influenza virus – how, over 45 years, it traverses the globe, evolving, each year being superseded by new, genetically different strains and culminating with pandemic influenza A H1N1/09 – the swine flu.

“My Life with Flu looks at the idea of flu both in terms of the influenza virus and in terms of love. Love works as a metaphor for flu because with both love and flu we don’t choose when we’re infected, how badly we will be affected or for how long.”

Sarah Woods A freelance playwright and campaigner who has written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC TV and radio and many regional theatre companies

“We wanted to tell the very familiar story of flu as we all experience it, punctuating the events of our lives. It is the quiet story of flu; it is true to life and the tempo and patterns are true to the science of virus transmission and evolution.”

Professor Paul Kellam Who leads the Virus Genomics team at the Sanger Institute and is also Professor of Virus Pathogenesis at University College London

The play emerged from a Wellcome Trust and Radio 4 Experimental Stories workshop where Ms Woods met Professor Kellam and PhD student Sarah Smith and discussed the science of influenza’s transmission, viral evolution and genetic predisposition. From these initial conversations, they created a drama that underlines the deep connection human beings have to the viruses that survive through us.

“This collaboration has affected the way I see the world around me. It made me realise how little we often know about what’s happening in our own bodies, so the drama explores our experience of the flu virus both at the micro level of our bodies and the macro level of an infection’s evolution and journey around the world.”

Sarah Woods

To develop a deeper understanding of virology Ms Woods spent time in the laboratory with Professor Kellam’s team at the Sanger Institute. Their research explores the genetics of viruses such as HIV, influenza virus, coronaviruses and human herpesviruses and the genetics of those who are infected by them. Recently, the team worked alongside health authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to track the evolution and spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus.

“Sarah absorbed so much detail about virus evolution and the genetics that govern our immune responses that the science is woven into the very fabric of the play. I’ve learned a huge amount from this experience about how scientists can tell the story of their research; it should be more than scientific papers and conferences.”

Professor Paul Kellam

Following this initial collaboration, Ms Woods is now in discussion with a number of researchers from the Sanger Institute to explore similar projects in the future.

“While Paul and I do very different things in our working lives, it was really nice to find that our motivations are similar. We both want to effect positive change in the world.”

Sarah Woods

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Notes to Editor

My life with flu

My Life with Flu is a five-part drama that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at the following times:

  • Monday 27 October, 10:45 – 11:00
  • Tuesday 28 October, 10:45 – 11:00
  • Wednesday 29 October, 10:41 – 10:55
  • Thursday 30 October, 10:45 – 11:00
  • Friday 31 October, 10:45 – 11:00

Selected websites

  • Radio 4, Women's Hour

  • The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.

  • The Wellcome Trust

    The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. We are independent of both political and commercial interests.