New superhero to combat the flu

The latest 'super antibody' influenza vaccine is lauded as the best defence so far.

A ‘super antibody’ has been created in a Swiss laboratory and is reported to be the best defence so far against the influenza A virus.
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The latest 'super antibody' influenza vaccine is lauded as the best defence yet. Rob Kemp reports

It sounds like something from a Marvel comic book. A "super antibody" in Captain America style has been created in a Swiss laboratory to defend the Earth against the havoc wreaked by a devastating super bug - the influenza A virus.

The antibody even has a name - the F16 - which military hardware geeks will recognise as the tag for a type of fighter jet. But before we get too carried away with this tale of good and evil, it's worth looking at exactly how close we are to a having a universal flu vaccine - one that could prevent millions of people from being infected with the bug each year.

Firstly, there's more than one "breakthrough" occurring in the fight against the influenza A virus. The most recent announcement, from Scientists at the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC) along with the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) and Humabs BioMed in Switzerland, concerns the F16 super antibody.

The F16 is lauded as the first, one-off antibody that has worked against all strains of influenza A in tests. Influenza A is the most severe infection of the flu groups; the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 was a strain. As many as 500,000 deaths worldwide are linked to the strain each year.

Counter measures against the flu fall into two groups: antivirals, which are widely used but resistance to them has been found to reduce their effectiveness, and vaccinations. Each year, the varying strains of influenza change the make-up of the virus - so a vaccination against influenza this year may not protect you against next year's flu.

But this latest super antibody may be able to adapt to counteract a wide variety of flu strains. "Historically, it has been impossible to predict precisely what kind of flu could develop into an epidemic, and, as such, it has been necessary to develop new vaccines each year to tackle the different viruses," said Dr Steve Gamblin, from the MRC's National Institute for Medical Research. "Our discovery may eventually help to develop a universal vaccine."

As was seen with the 2009 pandemic, even a comparatively mild strain of influenza can place a significant burden on emergency services. But the development of the F16 vaccine isn't the sole piece of good news on the flu front.

In last month's issue of the journal Science, it was revealed that the Dutch biopharmaceutical company Crucell had developed a new anti-influenza antibody, labelled CR8020. The antibody was found to neutralise group two influenza A viruses. Again, the discovery was hailed for being a potentially groundbreaking therapy against seasonal and pandemic flu.

Both developments follow on from news earlier this year of researchers at Oxford University, whose new vaccine was showing excellent preliminary results in boosting the body's immune response against all types of influenza A.

The constantly updated claims regarding flu vaccines may hopefully have an effect here in the UAE, where there's a comparatively low take-up of anti-flu jabs. Last November, the month in which vaccines designed to combat the latest strain were made available, a survey of UAE health authorities revealed that even among doctors and medical professionals, fewer than one in four health workers had been vaccinated against the latest form of the bug.

In the UK, the news that a super antibody for flu could just be a shot away has been cautiously welcomed. At establishments such as the Common Cold Centre, part of the University of Cardiff in Wales, the fact that F16 has only been tested on animals so far means that it's still a long way from being the super antibody many are hoping for.

Also, while both vaccines have been shown to be effective on influenza A strains, there are other, less common types of flu virus that can infect humans (influenzas B and C) that they haven't been tested against.

However, Professor Antonio Lanzavecchia, the chief scientific officer at Humabs, remains optimistic about the latest discovery. "I would expect it to work very well in humans," he says. "The unpredictability of new pandemics highlights the need for better treatments that target all influenza viruses - FI6 represents an important new option and we look forward to taking it through to the next stage of development."