There are occasions when nature provides humanity with totally unexpected medical breakthroughs, which have the potential to make a huge impact on society.
In what must be an amazing stroke of medical luck, a medical study volunteer had an unexpected and very usual reaction when given the flu-virus, which could possibly turn out to be vital.
Researchers believe that it might help them to finally develop a universal vaccine, capable of guarding people against all pandemic strains of influenza, because this particular participant in an influenza infection test seemed to have created, through his immune system, a kind of super-antibody capable of fighting off all influenza A strains.
As this is the virus most often to blame for people contracting the illness, a vaccine produced with this capability, through the effects of the antibody being boosted within it, would be a real boon, preliminary tests revealing that mice and ferrets given the super-antibody avoided contracting what would normally be lethal doses of influenza.
Antonio Lanzavecchia is director, in Switzerland of the Institute for Biomedicine research, is certain that mass-production of the new antibody could enable the treatment of any influenza A infection. The amazing possibility is the conceivable prevention of any new pandemic.
It is confidently expected that this new treatment will block the strains present in animals as well as humans, and if proven to work safely, could be directly given to front line workers in hospitals etc., protection against pandemics that might arise.
Over time, it is hoped to create a treatment able to cause the immune system to produce lots if super-antibodies to combat any kind of influenza infection. Normal jabs cause bodies to target haemagglutinins proteins found on virus surfaces, focusing offense on protein tips, but vaccines need constantly to be reformulated, because viruses evolve so quickly.
This new super-antibody, however, attacks an area of the haemagglutinin shared by all influenza A strains which apparently never mutates, effectively an Achilles Heel for these types of virus. Universal vaccines would make seasonal jabs obsolete, transforming public health.
When a possible pandemic seemed likely, it could be nipped in the bud, and millions who currently suffer from differing strains of influenza A would be better protected, and vulnerable groups like the very old or very young, would be much less likely to die or be hospitalized. A really excellent medical breakthrough, and apparently completely by an accident of nature, once again proving just how versatile she can be.