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Sunday, 8 July 2012

Could flu be stopped in its tracks?

During a 'flu epidemic vaccination helps. It reduces the pool of susceptible individuals and reduces infection rates in groups most likely to need hospital treatment. The big limitation is that it does not work very quickly. It takes the adaptive division of the immune system a week or two to respond to the vaccine and by that time someone could have contracted flu and become seriously ill. So it would be very handy if there were some means of protecting those who have been exposed to the disease - family members, carers, patients in hospital wards and residents in residential settings spring to mind. Not to mention people with weakened immune systems who may be vulnerable to both 'flu and secondary infections.
The other limitation is that flu vaccines are currently strain-specific. When swine flu started to spread in 2009 it took months before an effective vaccine was in full production. Too late to nip the pandemic in the bud. Too late to prevent some quarter of a million deaths, worldwide. These numbers are far higher than original estimates according to a recent analysis published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases last month
Exciting then, that an American research team have identified a protein that, when administered to mice that had just been deliberately infected with 'flu virus, seems to have a significantly protective effect. It works by stimulating the innate division of the immune system into action - something that is slow to happen in normal 'flu infection. Furthermore this protein is already approved for use in humans, as an immune-stimulating adjuvant in vaccines. This means that translating the research into human trials will be easier than if it was an untried substance. One of the benefits might be that it is generic, rather than strain-specific, which could be a real life saver next time a new pandemic strain emerges.
This would be an unusual treatment - something that truly "boosts" part of the immune system - as opposed to a wide range of ineffective vitamins, potions and herbs.
Sam D. Sanderson, Marilyn L. Thoman, Kornelia Kis, Elizabeth L. Virts, Edgar B. Herrera, Stephanie Widmann, Homero Sepulveda, Joy A. Phillips. Innate Immune Induction and Influenza Protection Elicited by a Response-Selective Agonist of Human C5a. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (7): 

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