Prevention is the best tool we have against colds and the flu, either through personal hygiene or the flu vaccine. But neither of those options is sure to stop you from getting a bug. Antivirals exist, but they are generally only prescribed for individuals at high-risk for complications from a virus, such as the elderly.
So what are researchers working on for prevention and treatment of the common cold and flu in the general population?
How can the flu vaccine be improved?
Each year, scientists have to predict which flu strains will be prevalent during the upcoming flu season because the vaccine has to be developed in advance. This can mean that some active strains in a given season will not be covered by the vaccine, which means there is potential for more people to become sick.
To improve the seasonal vaccine, researchers from Germany and the United Kingdom have improved the prediction methods used to determine which strains of the flu virus should be used each year.
Their research, published in the October issue of the journal GENETICS, analyzed the DNA sequences of thousands of flu strains dating back to 1968. They were able to pinpoint which strains were more likely to spread into the entire population and which were not. They also found that many more mutations were capable of replicating and surviving than previously thought.
The research may be able to help vaccine developers predict and understand virus evolution more completely, which could lead to better predictions for which flu vaccines need to be developed each season.
Another way scientists are looking to prevent the flu is through a universal vaccine, and new research from The Scripps Research Institute has brought us one step closer. Scientists have determined how a human antibody can neutralize flu viruses in a unique and broad way. This antibody recognizes the structure of a flu virus, which is crucial to how it attaches to a host cell. The antibody is able to hit this precise spot on the virus and this can neutralize a broad range of dangerous flu viruses. Previously it was thought that the structure was too small for the antibody to grab.
The antibody, called C05, was able to bind to proteins from a variety of influenza A strains, which is the most dangerous family of flu viruses. Not only did the study find that C05 prevented infection in mice, but it eliminated the flu virus up to three days after infection had begun. This suggests that a universal flu vaccine could be developed that elicited these antibodies in people.
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Is there potential for a preventive spray?
Another team of researchers is looking into a nasal spray that could protect against the flu. Specifically, scientists are looking to jumpstart the normal immune response that occurs when a virus enters the nose. A synthetic form of a natural substance found in the cell walls of bacteria (Pam2Cys) has shown promise in activating this response. In laboratory tests, using Pam2Cys as a nasal spray encourages the normal immune response, but does not replace it. Researchers suggest that it could be useful against pandemics and new viral strains.