Researchers at San Diego State University just may have found a universal panacea to the flu that frightens us all into getting a flu shot each year.
What did they find?
Published in the July 6th issue of Public Library of Science journal, the study found that synthetic protein EP67 is able to activate the immune system within two hours of being administered, forcing a strong response to the flu virus. So far the testing has been done only with mice that have been infected with the flu virus, but the results showed that those given a dose of EP67 within 24 hours of the infection didn’t get as sick as the mice not treated with the protein. Scientists measured the level of sickness in the mice by monitoring their weight loss – usually, sick mice lose about 20 percent of their weight, but those treated with EP67 only lost about 6 percent.
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How does the typical flu vaccine work?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, flu vaccines (the flu shot and the nasal-spray flu vaccine) cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. Currently, the seasonal flu vaccine protects against three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Three types flu virus commonly circulate today: influenza B viruses, influenza A (H1N1) viruses, and influenza A (H3N2) viruses. Each year, one flu virus of each kind is used to produce influenza vaccine.
How might EP67 be better than a flu shot?
Instead of attacking the flu virus itself, EP67 activates the immune system to start fighting the virus with its own antibodies within 24 hours of exposure--which is long before the immune system normally would be able to detect the virus. EP67 may also work better than the flu vaccine because the vaccine protects you only from certain strains of the flu virus, whereas this technique would function regardless of the strain with which you’re sick. Further, this would relieve the pressure on scientists to discern which strain might be prevalent in a given season, as well as eliminating concern over a virus developing a resistance to the vaccine.
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Could this work on other illnesses?
Yes, EP67 could be a potential game changer in terms of disease control and public health emergencies. Take, for instance, the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, or the SARS epidemic. With EP67, there would no longer be a need to identify the actual pathogen wreaking havoc – it would just be a matter of administering the protein to those infected. Even better, because EP67 is active in animals, including birds, there may be huge implications for veterinary applications.
What’s the bottom line?
Even though this study breaks ground in the treatment of infectious diseases, more research must be done to see how EP67 functions in different cells of the human body. So, it may be awhile before it could replace the annual flu shot. For now, stick to the CDC’s recommendations to get a yearly flu shot (people 6 months of age and older, especially those with health complications), and stay tuned for more advances in EP67 research.