We’ve seen promising moves towards developing a universal or near-universal influenza vaccine, but researchers at the Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center have taken a different tack to ward of the crafty virus. Although the flu virus actively keeps the immune system from detecting it for a few days, giving it time to gain a foothold, the researchers have found that a powerful synthetic protein, known as EP67, can kick start the immune system so that it reacts almost immediately to all strains of the virus.

Previously, EP67 had primarily been used to help activate the immune response by being added to a vaccine. But Joy Phillips, Ph.D from San Diego State University and her colleague Sam Sanderson Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, saw potential for the protein to work on its own.

Because EP67 acts on the immune system rather than the virus itself, it functions the same regardless of the flu strain. Compare this to the flu vaccine that needs to be tailored to match the currently circulating strain.

“When you find out you’ve been exposed to the flu, the only treatments available now target the virus directly but they are not reliable and often the virus develops a resistance against them,” Phillips said. “EP67 could potentially be a therapeutic that someone would take when they know they’ve been exposed that would help the body fight off the virus before you get sick.”

Phillips adds that EP67 could also be used in the event of a new strain of infectious disease, before the pathogen has even been identified, citing SARS or the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak as previous examples where the protein may have proven useful.

Testing EP67 on mice infected with the flu virus, the researchers found that those given a dose of EP67 within 24 hours of infection didn’t get sick – or as sick – as those that weren’t treated with EP67. With the level of illness in mice measured by weight loss, mice infected with the flu typically lose 20 percent of their body weight, while those treated with EP67 lost an average of just six percent. More importantly, Phillips said, the mice treated a day after being infected with a lethal dose of influenza didn’t die.

Since EP67 is active in animals, including birds, the researchers say their research also has huge implications for veterinary applications.

The team plans to also examine the effect EP67 has in the presence of a number of other pathogens and will take a closer look at how exactly the synthetic protein functions within different cells in the body.

The researcher’s study is published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

Source: San Diego State University