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1918 flu antibodies still working

18th August 2008

A team of influenza and immune system experts say that antibodies from survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic, the worst in human memory, are still effective against the highly deadly virus.

Old Hands

The researchers suggested new and better ways to fight viruses - especially new pandemic strains that emerge and spread before a vaccine can be formulated.

Their findings come from a study of 1918 pandemic survivors, now aged 91 to 101, who all lived through the pandemic as children.

Researchers found that their immune systems still carry a memory of that virus and can produce antibodies that kill the 1918 flu strain with surprising efficiency.

Writing in the journal Nature, researchers said they were surprised to find that the study subjects still had the cells floating in their blood so long after the devastating pandemic, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people.

James Crowe of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who helped lead the study, said the antibodies that the team isolated were 'remarkable' for their ability to grab onto the virus very tightly and almost never fell off.

The same antibodies were able to protect mice from the 1918 virus, which swept around the world at the end of World War I, using a very small amount of antibody, Crowe said.

The immune system can call upon T-cells or B-cells in fighting off micro-organisms like viruses or bacteria. The B-cells are made in the bone marrow and makes antibodies which flag and attack the invading organism.

In most of the survivors tested by Christopher Basler and colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the B-cells made antibodies highly attuned to the 1918 flu strain.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expert Terrence Tumpey worked on a team that resurrected the 1918 virus taken from buried victims of the epidemic and tested it in mice, some of whom were given the antibodies from the elderly survivors.

Those who got the antibodies lived, while those given placebos died.

Crowe called for further research to see if the immune systems of people who had had other strains of influenza were as strong. He said the fact that the survivors were infected in childhood could account for their strong immune responses.

He said the findings might pave the way for designer antibodies to fight many other kinds of virus.

The 1918 flu virus was an H1N1 strain that apparently came straight from birds, similar to the H5N1 avian influenza circulating in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Crowe said the study meant that that human beings can make long lasting immune responses to bird influenza. He and his team now plan to get antibodies from people vaccinated with experimental shots for the H5N1 avian influenza.

Now circulating in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, H5N1 mostly affects birds but it has infected 385 people since 2003, killing 243.

Experts warn that H5N1 could mutate into a form that passes easily among humans, sparking an overdue pandemic which could kill millions, and against which current vaccines have not been tested.

In the meantime, Crowe said, antibodies from survivors might make a good interim treatment during the months while a pandemic vaccine is formulated, manufactured and distributed.


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Article Information

Title: 1918 flu antibodies still working
Author: Luisetta Mudie
Article Id: 7905
Date Added: 18th Aug 2008


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