Flu scare prompts “emergency science”

By Jeremy Manier

Ever since the swine flu outbreak hit, Patrick Wilson has been immersed in what he calls “emergency science.”

The emergency may have abated thanks to the low mortality rate observed from the H1N1 strain, but Wilson’s group is working with scientists at Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help combat the novel flu variety.

Wilson’s skills suddenly are in high demand because of a paper he co-authored in the journal Nature last year, demonstrating a rapid method of making antibodies to specific types of flu. The technique one day could help protect against new pandemic strains for which a vaccines do not yet exist. In the short term, the method offers a new way of rapidly diagnosing cases of H1N1 flu.

“The first application the CDC wants is to make a rapid diagnostic,” said Wilson, an assistant professor in the department of medicine at the University of Chicago.

The method that Wilson’s team published last year could be a new chapter for an old way of dealing with infection through “passive immunization.” The idea of harvesting antibodies for sick patients began in 1891, when Emil von Behring and Shibasaburo Kitasato cured a patient with diptheria by injecting serum from sheep that had antibodies to the disease. Von Behring later won a Nobel Prize as “The Founder of Serum Therapy.”

Before the advent of antibiotics, such treatments with antibodies became widely used for many infections, including anthrax and Streptococcus pneumoniae.

“Doctors used to keep vials of antibody serum that they could use off the shelf for various infections,” Wilson said.

The risk of anaphylactic shock and other drawbacks of antibody serum made doctors turn to antibiotics and vaccines once they became widely available. But even today, the idea of using antibodies has appeal for emerging viral infections, for which scientists have not yet developed a vaccine.

Flu vaccines typically take months to make, but the technique that Wilson devised with colleagues from Emory and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center can produce monoclonal antibodies to a specific strain of flu in just a few weeks.

No one knows yet if the flu antibodies would offer meaningful protection in the case of an emerging pandemic. Wilson said it’s possible that the technique would prevent infection in people at high risk of exposure during the period when scientists are still working on a vaccine.

“It’s controversial how useful antibodies would be in treating this kind of infectious disease,” Wilson said.

But using the antibodies to develop a rapid diagnostic tool could be almost as valuable. Currently, most hospitals use an antibody-based test to see if a patient has influenza, then they ship samples to state labs or the CDC for further testing, which usually takes several days. The new method of producing monoclonal antibodies would allow for faster and more widespread testing of new flu viruses as they emerge.

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