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Scientific Breakthrough: Permanent “Universal” Flu Vaccine that Lasts a Lifetime Nears

When the H1N1 flu virus started to spread in the United States in 2009, a group of scientists quickly secured nine patients who were infected. The research with these patients was originally undertaken to help protect healthcare workers from H1N1, but what the scientists discovered may be something of epic proportions that could benefit humanity on a universal scale.

The research team, which consisted of professionals from Columbia University, Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was able to isolate 86 antibodies from the nine H1N1 patients. Antibodies are created by the body’s immune system to fight disease, bacteria and virueses.

The researchers discovered that five of the antibodies treated more than just the most recent H1N1 strain. The antibodies were also effective against all of the H1N1 strains from the last decade, and a few of the antibodies actually allowed mice to live after they received lethal doses of H1N1, along with a several other common strains of flu virus.

One member of the research team, in an interview with Reuters, said the new research “… demonstrates how to make a single vaccine that could potentially provide permanent immunity to all influenza.” This is because researchers now believe that the body can produce multi-dimensional antibodies under certain conditions. If these anti-bodies can be isolated, it seems that a flu shot that “permanently” fights off all types of the flu virus could be created in the laboratory.

In fact, Reuters reported that the research team above is working with an undisclosed biotechnology company to develop a drug or vaccine that permanently treats the flu. Also, a July, 2010 study released by the National Institutes of Health unveiled a two-step vaccine that uses antibodies to “prime” the immune system before a regular flu shot is administered. That approach was successful in treating mice and ferrets against flu strains that were present between 1934 and 2007, and this new approach is now being applied to humans, Reuters reported.

The background behind the five antibodies above (the ones that fight multiple strains of flu viruses) is an interesting one. It turns out that these “super-flu” antibodies were created by the test subjects due to the fact the human body was unfamiliar with the 2009 H1N1 flu strain. That strain was apparently so unique that the body’s response was to attack the “stem” of the actual flu virus, rather than the Hemagglutinin, which is a lollipop-shaped structure with a big, round head.

Antibodies usually attack flu virus protein on the Hemagglutinin, which mutates much more quickly than its stems, so antibodies that treat the virus on the stems can be effective in treating many more types of flu viruses (because they are the building blocks of the Hemagglutinin).

So, when it is all said and done, there may be a blessing in the 2009 H1N1 virus. For as much death and suffering as it regrettably caused, it may help researchers to provide a one-time flu shot that permanently treats the flu virus. The flu has caused as many as 49,000 annual deaths in the United States, and a permanent treatment would surely save millions of lives in the long run.

The H1N1 research paper was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

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