Federal scientists have developed a vaccine that protects mice against the killer 1918 influenza virus. They also have created a technique for identifying antibodies that neutralize this virus, a tool that could help contain future pandemic flu strains. These findings are important, the researchers say, to understanding and preventing the recurrence of the H1N1 influenza virus that caused the 1918 pandemic and to protecting against virulent flu strains in the future, including the H5N1 avian flu virus. Details of the research are available online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .
Gary J. Nabel, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), led the research team in developing the experimental vaccines and conducting the immunological studies in mice. Terrence Tumpey, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted vaccine studies in mice involving the live, reconstructed 1918 flu virus in a biosafety level 3-enhanced laboratory at the CDC in Atlanta — one of four types of specialized biosafety labs where scientists study contagious and potentially deadly materials under high-level safety and contamination precautions designed to protect the researchers and prevent microorganisms from entering the environment.
“Understanding why this influenza virus was so deadly is an extremely important question,” says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. “By building upon earlier research where scientists successfully reconstructed the 1918 pandemic flu strain, Dr. Nabel and his colleagues have demonstrated that this virus is vulnerable to intervention. This knowledge will help further our continued efforts to develop treatments and vaccines to protect us against another deadly flu pandemic.”
The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic was the most deadly flu outbreak in modern history, killing 50 million or more people worldwide.
“A key to containing pandemic flu viruses is to understand their vulnerabilities and determine whether they can evade immune recognition,” says Dr. Nabel. “What we learn about the H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 pandemic is pertinent to other pandemic viruses and to the development of effective and universal vaccines.”
Using the genetic sequence information for the 1918 flu virus, Dr. Nabel and his VRC colleagues created plasmids — small strands of DNA designed to express specific characteristics — carrying genes for the virus’ hemagglutinin (HA) protein, the surface protein found in all flu viruses that allows the virus to stick to a cell and cause infection. The researchers created two types of plasmids: one to reflect the HA found in the original 1918 flu virus; the other an altered HA protein designed to attenuate (weaken) the virus.
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