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Discovery Opens the Door on Fighting the Flu

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We’ve all battled the flu at one time or another, but a new discovery has the potential of tipping the scales in favor of humans by eliminating the virus’ ability to infect. The discovery, published in the February 22 edition of Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, provides hope for a flu vaccine that will someday fight not only the bird flu and other serious pandemic strains, but perhaps most importantly, the common seasonal flu. Scientists at Harvard Medical School, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Burnham Institute for Medical Research studied new human antibodies and their effects on the influenza virus.

Instead of attacking the virus by injecting humans with weak strains of the virus, these antibodies bind to the flu virus, preventing it from infecting its host altogether. This discovery could radically change how we fight the flu. Influenza mutates quickly making it resistant to vaccines, which is why the flu shot needs to be changed each year. With the antibody discovery, the stem of the virus would be attacked, an area that is more resistant to mutation. According to researcher and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the research has provided a “new target, new mechanism, new human antibodies.” Some scientists are even claiming the discovery has revealed influenza’s “Achilles’ heel.”

The studies, which were performed on mice, revealed that the antibodies were effective against the 1918 flu strain that killed 40 million people worldwide, along with the N5N1 avian flu strain, which is believed to be eligible of causing the next pandemic. Researchers expect the antibodies to be tested in human clinical trials during the 2010-2011 flu season. Although a vaccine to treat all strains of the flu is years away, the discovery provides hope that this is not as far fetched as scientists once thought.