A cure for the flu is something we all wish for, right along with a cure for the common cold. Researchers have done well in providing a preventative seasonal flu vaccine and anti-virals, such as Tamiflu, can help to treat the flu once you have it, but there has been no “cure.” A universal influenza vaccine may be the closest thing we can achieve to a cure for the flu and researchers are actively working to make this happen.
According to a study published this month in the journal Science, researchers have discovered a novel monoclonal antibody, FI6, that binds and neutralizes Group 1 and Group 2 human and animal Influenza A viruses. It is the first antibody able to target all subtypes of Influenza A and was discovered as the result of collaboration between Humabs BioMed SA, Institute for Research in Biomedicine, and the UK Medical Research Council. FI6 was found during a massive effort of screening hundreds of thousands of cultured plasma cells from human donors using Humabs’ patented high throughput screening method.
The discovery of FI6 provides two approaches for dealing with the flu. The short-term opportunity would be to produce the FI6 monoclonal antibody as a treatment for the flu. In theory, those infected with the flu, especially those most at risk of severe illness (elderly, children, and pregnant women) would be treated with FI6 and their symptoms would become milder and then go away completely. In the study, mice and ferrets were given a lethal dose of Influenza virus and when treated with FI6 within two days they made a full recovery.
The long-term opportunity would be to utilize the information found in FI6 to get closer to creating a universal Influenza vaccine. This would protect those vaccinated from getting the flu in the first place and would essentially provide a “cure” for those regularly vaccinated. The vaccine would also eliminate yearly decisions scientists have to make regarding which Influenza strains to include in the seasonal vaccine. Influenza surveillance occurs in countries around the world every year and the data is compiled and sent to the World Health Organization (WHO) for further analysis. Based on the data, the WHO issues a recommendation detailing which Influenza strains to include in the current year’s seasonal flu vaccine. Using traditional egg-based methods, it takes six months for vaccine manufacturing to occur with no ability to add another strain that has surfaced. When the strains aren’t correctly predicted, Influenza outbreaks can occur that are particularly difficult and even deadly for at-risk groups.
Currently, FI6 addresses Influenza A viruses and does not solve the problems created by Influenza B and Influenza C. Influenza A evolves rapidly and is considered the most dangerous and has been the cause of all pandemics. Influenza B is generally milder, evolves much slower, and has not been the cause of any pandemics. Influenza C is not a concern and typically results in a very mild illness.
Despite the fact that FI6 is not a cure all, it could have tremendous impact on the treatment and prevention of Influenza pandemics. The 2009 Swine Flue pandemic was relatively mild and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated 8,870-18,300 people died in the United States. The CDC estimates deaths in the United States for the Spanish Influenza Pandemic (1918-1919) at 675,000, the Asian Influenza Pandemic (1957-1958) at about 69,800, and the Hong Kong Influenza Pandemic (1968-1969) at 33,800. Despite its mild effect, the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic caused major strains on emergency services and was particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women. It is frightening to think what the situation would be if a more deadly strain of influenza caused a pandemic. Having a universal flu vaccine would be an extremely valuable tool in preventing pandemics. Even using FI6 as a treatment during a pandemic could make a huge impact. We can all keep hoping for a “cure” for the flu and hopefully it arrives before the next pandemic.
For further reading see:
- Corti, et al. (2011). A Neutralizing Antibody Selected from Plasma Cells That Binds to Group 1 and Group 2 Influenza A Hemagglutinins. Science, 12 August 2011: 850-856.