Each year, between 12,000 and 56,000 Americans die from influenza, more commonly known as the flu, and related complications. To combat this disease, scientists have decided to take on a different approach to developing a new flu treatment.
Llamas are being used to build a new antibody therapy that has the possibility to work against all types of flu. The influenza virus is continuously changing its ways to evade our immune system, which is why a new flu shot is needed each winter. Scientists need to figure out a new technique to kill all these different types of flu.
Professor Ian Wilson, from the Scripps Institute in California, is one of the scientists researching new flu treatments using llamas. He told BBC’s Science in Action, "It’s very effective, there were 60 different viruses that were used in the challenge and only one wasn’t neutralized and that's a virus that doesn’t infect humans.” He continued saying, “The goal here is to provide something that would work from season to season, and also protect you from possible pandemics should they emerge.”
Antibodies are a kind of weapon belonging to the immune system that binds to proteins on the surface of a virus. Llamas are needed in this process because their blood produces very tiny antibodies compared to our own in the human body. Their antibodies are unique in that they have the smallest binding sites of any known antibody.
Human antibodies always try to attack the tips of the proteins on the virus, where the virus mutates more often. Llama antibodies use their size advantage to get a little deeper and attack the protein parts that human antibodies cannot reach. At the Scripps Institute in California, a team infected llamas with multiple types of the flu to create an immune response. After that, they searched through llama blood for the most powerful antibodies that were able to attack a wide range of flu strains. They picked four antibodies and began building their own synthetic antibody, using elements from each. The synthetic antibody was then tested on mice, which were given fatal doses of influenza.
The researchers used two different methods to give the mice the antibodies. One was an injection, the other was a type of gene therapy. To design this gene therapy, the scientists created a virus which contained the genetic instructions for making the antibody. The modified virus was then used to infect the noses of the lab mice. As this modified virus reproduced inside the mice, it also reproduced the llama-like synthetic antibodies. The researchers found that the synthetic antibody was very effective. Of the 60 different viruses that were tested, only one wasn't neutralized and that virus doesn't infect humans.
An advantage of this approach is that it could work on the elderly. The older you are, the weaker your immune system gets, and therefore the less effective the seasonal flu vaccine becomes. Using this new method, researchers are able to use inject people with lab-made antibodies, instead of injecting them with vaccines which provoke the human body to produce its own antibodies.
Professor Jonathan Ball, from the University of Nottingham, told BBC, “Having a treatment that can work across a range of different strains of virus is highly sought after. It’s the Holy Grail of influenza.”
So while the widespread implementation of this new treatment is still in progress, researchers believe that these types of treatments will be most helpful for the elderly. For the younger population, vaccines could still be used.
Real Clear Science
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