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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 20:22 GMT
Dead aristocrat's hidden flu clue
Sir Mark Sykes
Sir Mark's body is thought to have been buried in a lead-lined coffin
A Yorkshire aristocrat who died nearly 90 years ago could help the global fight against bird flu, experts say.

A court has authorised the exhumation of the body of Sir Mark Sykes, the owner of the historic Sledmere House near Driffield.

Scientists hope the Spanish flu virus from which he died in 1919 may still be present in his body because it has been preserved in a lead-lined coffin.

If so, DNA samples could help experts develop drugs to fight the virus.

'Wonderful opportunity'

The Spanish flu virus killed more than 50 million people when it took hold at the end of the First World War.

Scientists have been trying to find a sample of the virus, which was similar to some strains of the modern bird flu virus and could have a similar genetic structure.

It is thought that after he died, Sir Mark's body was brought back to the Sledmere Estate in a lead-lined coffin.

Professor John Oxford
Scientists may take samples from the aristocrat's body

The metal has a preservative quality and it is hoped samples containing the virus can still be taken from the aristocrat's body.

Experts have been trying to locate a burial of this kind in the belief it may have preserved the secrets of the virus.

Professor John Oxford, a leading virologist, told the BBC's Inside Out programme: "At this point it looks quite encouraging.

"I think the next thing to do now is to decide to open up the grave and see what samples we can take.

"If we can get samples, that would be a wonderful opportunity for my team and for science in general.

"We can get answers to very important questions. This is not just history - at the moment we are on the potential verge of the first great outbreak of influenza of the 21st Century.

"We need answers to questions to help us prepare for this first outbreak and I think Sir Mark can help there."

The former MP's grandchildren have granted permission for his body to be exhumed.

Grandson Christopher Simon Sykes said: "We are all agreed that it is a very good thing, that it should go ahead.

"It is rather fascinating, (to think) that maybe even in his state as a corpse, he might be helping the world in some way."

Inside Out, BBC1 Friday 1930 GMT


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The grave of Sir Mark Sykes



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