Lab-made proteins to fight flu

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A small family of lab-made proteins have been identified that neutralize a broad range of influenza A viruses, including the H5N1 avian virus, the 1918 pandemic influenza virus and seasonal H1N1 flu viruses. These lab-made human antibodies have also been found to disable the type of “Spanish Flu” strain that killed tens of millions in 1918.


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Following tests on mice, scientists have found that the antibodies work by binding to a previously obscure structure in the flu virus which, when blocked, sabotages the pathogen’s ability to enter the cell it is trying to infect.

As the antibodies are effective against many different strains, this breakthrough provides the scope for development into a medical tool to treat and prevent seasonal as well as pandemic influenza.

The researchers plan to begin clinical trials on humans within a couple of years.

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There are more than 250,000 casualties every year because of seasonal flu. Pandemic flu, which occurs with the emergence of deadly viral strains against which people lack immunity, remains an ever-present threat. The first line of defense against flu has been vaccines. But even seasonal viruses evolve so rapidly that even after updating vaccines every year, they are not always effective.

A team led by Wayne Marasco, a professor at Harvard Medical School, began the study by scanning tens of billions of so-called monoclonal antibodies in the laboratory. Antibodies, produced by the immune system’s white blood cells, are highly specialized proteins that seek out and bind to other large molecules, called antigens, found on the surface of an invading bacteria or virus.

Once locked in, an antibody serves as a beacon to immune cells that attack the pathogens. More rarely, it can disable a disease agent all by itself. Monoclonal antibodies are manufactured in the laboratory from a single parent cell using a technique devised more than 30 years ago. Marasco and colleagues turned up 10 of the artificial antibodies that bound to the H5N1 avian flu, said the study, published in the Nature Group’s journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. [1]

Treat influenza outbreak or pandemic

After more testing large quantities of monoclonal antibodies can be made relatively quickly, and used in combination with antiviral drugs, they could potentially be used to prevent or treat the flu during an influenza outbreak or pandemic.

The human monoclonal antibodies could be an important adjunct to antiviral drugs to contain the outbreak until a vaccine becomes available.

Vaccine developers too can benefit from these findings. Current influenza vaccines target the constantly mutating head of the HA protein and do not readily generate antibodies against the conserved region in the neck.


  • The first therapeutic monoclonal antibody was approved for human use in 1986. There are now more than 20 Food and Drug Administration-approved monoclonal antibodies, most used to treat cancers or immunological diseases. [2]
  • The monoclonal antibodies may be used as a therapy or as a way to diagnose the strain of flu virus with which an individual is infected. [2]

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Additional information


  • Soon, one jab for all types of flu
  • Human monoclonal antibodies neutralize multiple strains of seasonal and pandemic flu


  1. Nature Structural and Molecular Biology
  2. 2.0 2.1