Flu “super antibody” may bring universal shot closer

LONDON, (Reuters) – Scientists have found a flu  “super antibody” called FI6 that can fight all types of  influenza A viruses that cause disease in humans and animals and  say their discovery may be a turning point in the development of  new flu treatments.

Researchers from Britain and Switzerland used a new method  aimed at beating “needle-in-a-haystack-type-odds” and managed to  identify an antibody from a human patient which neutralises both  main groups of influenza A viruses.

Although it is an early step, they said, it is an important  one and in time may pave the way for the development of a  universal flu vaccine.

Vaccine makers currently have to change the formulations of  their flu shots every year to make sure they protect against the  strains of the virus circulating.  This is a cumbersome process  which takes time and money, so the goal is come up with a  universal flu vaccine that could protect people from all flu  strains for decades, or even for life.

Dozens of companies make influenza vaccines, including  Sanofi Aventis , GlaxoSmithKline , Novartis   , AstraZeneca and CSL .

“As we saw with the 2009 pandemic, a comparatively mild  strain of influenza can place a significant burden on emergency  services. Having a universal treatment which can be given in  emergency circumstances would be an invaluable asset,” said John  Skehel of Britain’s National Institute for Medical Research, who  worked on the study with colleagues from the privately-owned  Swiss firm Humabs.

Antonio Lanzavecchia, Humabs’ chief scientific officer and  director of the Swiss Institute for Research in Biomedicine,  said high rates of seasonal flu and the
unpredictability of  possible future pandemics underlined the need for better  treatments that target all flu viruses.

When someone is infected with the flu virus, their  antibodies target the virus’ haemagglutinin protein, the  researchers explained in their study, which was published on  Thursday in the journal Science.

Because this protein evolves so rapidly, there are currently  16 different subtypes of influenza A, which form two main  groups. Humans usually produce antibodies to a specific subtype,  and new vaccines are made each year to match these strains.

To make progress towards a universal shot that could be used  every year, scientists need to identify the molecular signatures  that prompt the development of broadly neutralising antibodies.

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