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Discovery Could Lead To New Drugs and Universal Flu Vaccine

Posted by Chrissie Cole
Monday, February 23, 2009 9:49 AM EST
Category: Major Medical
Tags: Protecting Your Family, Influenza, FDA and Prescription Drugs, Flu, Public Health, Flu Drugs


IMAGE SOURCE: iStockPhoto / flu vaccine given / Millanovic

U.S. scientists have identified new human antibodies that inactivate influenza, not just bird flu, but many of the seasonal viruses that affect us in the winter months.

The discovery could pave the way to future drugs that fight the flu and a vaccine that would not need to be changed yearly because it would target a broad range of flu strains.

Seasonal influenza kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people globally every year, according to the World Health Organization. This includes 36,000 people in the United States alone.

The antibodies identify a new part of the flu virus and inactivate the virus by way of a new mechanism, explains Wayne Marasco, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “It’s a new target, new mechanism and new human antibodies.”

When combined with other treatements, flu drugs developed from the newly discovered antibodies, can prevent or treat avian and seasonal flus while leading to the development of a long-term flu vaccine, wrote researchers.

Antiviral drugs are a class of medication used to treat a virus or prevent a virus after exposure. This year, however, common H1 strains of the influenza virus have been resistant to the drug Tamiflu (Oseltamivir).

Resistance occurs because a drug targets the large head of the virus, but the virus is able to quickly mutate, making it resistant to vaccines and medications – which is why new seasonal flu vaccines need to be developed each year, said Marasco.

But, the newly discovered antibodies attack the stem of the virus, which is more resistant to change and “does not change amongst the various influenza viruses,” he said.

Marasco says, “These antibodies do not replace the flu vaccine. “But they allow a new avenue of vaccine development.” A vaccine developed to target this area of the virus, would have the potential to offer long-term protection.

During the study, researchers found that antibodies protected rodents from getting the N5N1 avian flu, which many scientists believe could has the potential to cause a worldwide flu pandemic. The 1918 flu pandemic, killed at least 20 to 50 million worldwide and 500,000 in the U.S.

The new antibodies were effective against the 1918 flu strain. Moreover, they were effective against several common seasonal flu strains also.

Drugs using these antibodies could be in human trials as early as 2011-2012.

In a statement, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said, “The findings hold promise for further development into a medical tool to prevent and treat seasonal as well as pandemic influenza.”

While the findings are encouraging, testing is still in the early phase, and human trials will need to be done to determine safety. The treatment isn’t universal and doesn’t cover all viruses, said William Schaffner, infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who was not involved in the research.

“This finding could allow us to accomplish two things at once: a vaccine for better protection and therapeutic antibodies that would be potentially useful in treatment, Schaffner said.

The study is published in the Feb. 22 online edition of Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. #

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