Caltech researchers develop method to produce antibodies to fight flu

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What if you could teach your body to fight flu bugs without a yearly shot? California Institute of Technology scientists say they've figured out a way.

New research could someday signal the end of flu shots. Influenza A strains make people terribly sick year after year. Vaccines work by introducing the virus into our systems and then eliciting a normal immune response. Now, Caltech researchers are working on a technique that could make our immune systems smarter.

Flu shots are available everywhere. Since the influenza virus tends to mutate, new vaccines are formulated every season. That's why you need a new one every year, but not everyone likes the idea of needles.

"I don't really like the feel of them because they hurt," one patient said.

But what if you could teach your body to fight flu bugs without a yearly shot? California Institute of Technology scientists say they've figured out a way.

At Caltech, Nobel Laureate David Baltimore and his colleagues tested a totally different approach called vectored immunoprophylaxis, or VIP. The technique successfully protected mice.

"We could protect against next year's strain and the following year's strain if we can give people the ability to make this one kind of antibody, and that's what we've done," Dr. Baltimore said.

It was first designed to help the body fight the virus that causes AIDS. Like HIV, all flu viruses carry a common receptor that can be targeted.

"It did occur to us, after we had developed it for HIV, that it could also be used for flu," Dr. Baltimore said.

Doctors inject a particular gene into the body's muscle that gives the body step-by-step instructions to produce specific antibodies to neutralize the flu.

"We give the body a new antibody, one that it could in principle make, but in fact doesn't make," Dr. Baltimore said.

Dr. Baltimore says this same process can be used to help the body build resistance against other viruses that fool the human immune system such as malaria and tuberculosis. Gene-based therapies such as VIP are already being used to treat inherited conditions, cancer and other diseases.

As for the flu, the next step is to test the VIP process in humans. If all goes well in human trials as they did in the animal experiments, Dr. Baltimore says a VIP injection could be available in the next five to 10 years. Until then, he urges everyone to get the flu vaccine every year.

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