Survivors’ molecules may lead to new bird flu therapy

Bangladeshi vendors display chickens in a cage at a market in Dhaka May 3, 2007. Bird flu has spread to six more farms in western Bangladesh, forcing authorities to cull thousands of fowl and destroy eggs, government officials said on Thursday. (Xinhua/Reuters Photo)

May 29 (Xinhuanet) — Culling immune-system molecules from survivors of bird flu could provide a new therapy for the hard-to-treat H5N1 flu strain, an international team reported Monday.

    “Obviously we’re interested and excited about this potential,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the U.S. National Institute of Health.

    The research started when four Vietnamese adults who survived bouts of H5N1 in 2004 agreed to donate blood to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City.

    Mice given the non-H5N1 antibodies died. The H5N1-targeting antibodies protected mice, both when they were administered as a vaccine-like preventive or after infection.

    Importantly, they worked against both the same 2004 strain that the people had survived and against a different H5N1 strain that circulated in 2005.    

    If the research pans out, it could be possible to stockpile these antibodies, the immune system’s search-and-destroy force, as an additional way to treat or even prevent H5N1 in case the worrisome flu strain ever mutates to spark a worldwide epidemic, the researcher added.

    More work is needed before trying these purified antibodies in people. It’s standard to test flu vaccines and treatments in ferrets, who respond to influenza more like people do. Then the antibodies would need testing in healthy people, to see if they’re safe.

    If so, they might be tried as a treatment for people still falling ill with H5N1 in parts of Asia. The only treatment now is the drug Tamiflu, which doesn’t always save them.

    Dr. William Schaffner, a flu expert at Vanderbilt University, pointed to a more immediate use: If antibodies can help the notorious bird flu, why not cull some specific to the regular, but still too often deadly, influenza that spreads every winter?

    “This has the dual potential of being useful potentially in a pandemic, but perhaps more so on an annual basis,” Schaffner said. “That’s where I think the real excitement is.”

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