H1N1 could provide the tools to fight lots of different flu viruses

Here's a fascinating follow up to the H1N1 flu fears from a couple of years ago. At the height of concern, researchers at the University of Chicago, Emory University, and the CDC, began studying the antibodies a human immune system produced when exposed to the H1N1 strain of flu. At the time, they were hoping to create emergency "vaccines", a way to protect health care workers during an epidemic by injecting them with antibodies from people who'd already faced down the virus.

What they found is something potentially much more important: Antibodies produced in response to H1N1 seem to defend against many other strains of the flu, as well. Here's what the University of Chicago Medical Center's Science Life blog had to say:

When the body reacts to an influenza virus, or any other infectious disease, it creates antibodies that target a specific segment of the invading virus or bacteria to kill or neutralize it. But because influenza viruses are constantly mutating into new forms, antibodies your immune system generated for previous seasons' strains may not be protective against new strains. Hence, the need for a yearly flu shot, which contains inactivated forms of the viruses that scientists predict will become common in the next season.

For Wilson and his collaborators, the original idea was to take antibodies from patients exposed to H1N1 in its earliest days and use them to either protect others from infection or treat those who had already been infected. Initial experiments on the antibodies' power of recognition proved successful – as predicted, many of the antibodies harvested from the white blood cells of H1N1 patients were able to bind the flu strain in an assay. But then, a surprise: when tested with seasonal flu strains from previous years, the antibodies could bind those viruses as well. Researchers threw the last 10 years of seasonal flu, the deadly 1918 virus, and even a dangerous but rare H5N1 avian flu at the antibodies and found they could neutralize them all.

So far, one research team has found this result in mice and petri dishes. That's important to keep in mind. This may not work the same in people. Other researchers could even get different results with the mice. This is not at a point where it's reasonable for people who usually get a flu shot to say, "Oh, I think I had H1N1, I guess I never need to get a flu vaccine ever again."

But, if the results hold up, this could be a big deal someday. The ultimate hope: A flu vaccine like other vaccines—one size fits all, no need to get a new jab every year.

Via Greg Laden