Llamas may hold the key to a long-lasting flu vaccine, research suggests. Laboratory tests showed a protein produced by the fluffy animals, as well as camels, fought off the virus in mice. Rodents were even protected against 60 strains of flu, which cause fever, headache and fatigue in humans, for more than nine months. Currently,
Llamas may hold the key to a long-lasting flu vaccine, research suggests.
Laboratory tests showed a protein produced by the fluffy animals, as well as camels, fought off the virus in mice.
Rodents were even protected against 60 strains of flu, which cause fever, headache and fatigue in humans, for more than nine months.
Currently, flu jabs protect against a maximum of four strains – meaning people can still be struck down by strains that were not predicted to be active.
The Belgian study has even raised hopes of a flu nasal spray, after the mice were equally protected when the vaccine was injected or inhaled.
Llamas may hold the key to a long-lasting flu vaccine, research suggests (stock)
Researchers collected antibodies – proteins used by body’s immune system to neutralise pathogens – from llamas.
The team, from the pharmaceutical giant Janssen, Beerse, injected the animals with a vaccine that contained three different flu viruses.
The viruses included the H1N1 pathogen that caused the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and killed up to five per cent of the world’s population.
The scientists then collected four antibodies circulating in the llamas’ blood and combined them to create a ‘super protein’.
When this protein was given to mice – either via a nasal spray or an injection – they were more likely to survive influenza A and B than untreated rodents.
Influenza A, which includes bird flu, affects both animals and humans. This virus is constantly changing and is responsible for widespread epidemics.
Influenza B meanwhile is only found in humans and tends to be less severe than A. However, it was blamed for severe outbreaks in the UK and US last winter.
‘It’s been quite hard to find an antibody that neutralises both A and B,’ biologist Professor Ian Wilson, from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, said.
Professor Wilson, who has published more than 50 studies on flu antibodies, helped work out how the super protein binds to flu viruses.
WHERE CAN YOU GET A FLU JAB?
Flu can be a serious illness. If you become very ill with it, it can cause complications such as pneumonia, kidney failure and inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle.
People at most risk of serious illness or death if they get flu are offered the vaccine on the NHS. Ideally you should have this before the end of December, when flu peaks (it takes around two weeks after the jab for antibodies to develop completely).
At-risk groups include anyone aged 65 and over, people living in long-stay residential care homes, carers and pregnant women.
The vaccine is also offered to anyone aged six months to 65 years with certain conditions, such as diabetes.
It is available via your GP’s surgery.
All children aged two to eight (on August 31, 2017) are also offered the vaccine as a nasal spray. The UK introduced the child vaccination programme in 2013. Last year, the vaccine had 66 per cent effectiveness. Australia does not have a similar programme.
If you do not qualify to have the jab on the NHS, you can pay to get it at a pharmacy.
Well Pharmacy charges £9 to £14 (depending on the number of strains in the vaccine), Superdrug from £9.99, Lloyds Pharmacy £10, Boots £12.99 and Tesco £9.
Older children who fall outside the NHS scheme can get the nasal spray vaccine from some pharmacies such as Well (£23 for those aged between two and 18; this may involve a second dose at least four weeks later for another £23) and the injection for those 12 and over for £9.
Boots offers the jab to those aged 10 and over at £12.99. Tesco offers it to those 12 and over at £9.
The study, published in the journal Science, also showed the jab protected rhesus macques monkeys for four months.
The challenge with creating flu vaccines is that the virus is ever evolving to avoid detection.
Therefore, scientists must predict which receptors they should make the jab target ahead of a winter outbreak.
But the protein developed from llamas is made up of many different antibodies that latch on to markers found across numerous flu strains.
It is also smaller than the average antibody due to it not containing as many protein chains.
This means it is able to penetrate deeper into a flu virus, reaching crevices that larger antibodies cannot touch.
Research suggests these crevices do not evolve as fast as receptors on the surface of flu viruses and may therefore be easier to target.
It is thought many people put off flu jabs due to a fear of needles, with a nasal spray potentially being more appealing.
This may help persuade the 29 per cent of over 65s who do not get vaccinated in the average year despite being eligible for a free jab on the NHS.
‘This is a great story and shows the power of antibody engineering,’ flu vaccine researcher Professor Antonio Lanzavecchia told Science.
Professor Lanzavecchia works at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Bellinzona, Switzerland, and was not involved in the study.
The researchers, who were led by Joost Kolkman, stress it may be many years before a nasal flu vaccine is available for adults.
Flu antibody specialist Dr James Crowe, from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, also warned a human’s immune system may see a llama protein as a foreign substance.
It could, therefore, launch an immune response against it, he added. Dr Crowe was not involved in the research.
A nasal flu spray is already available for children aged between two and eight years old in the UK.
Elderly people and pregnant women are among the most at risk because the virus can lead to pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis and brain inflammation.
Flu is also a very common infection in babies and children, who may require hospital treatment, with some even dying from the infection.
Earlier this week, a report revealed millions of at-risk patients in the UK have yet to get their flu jab this winter because of delivery problems to GP practices.
Just 33.8 per cent of over-65s have been vaccinated, compared to 53.7 per cent this time last year, according to a Public Heath England national flu report.