Swimming with Seals riskier than Surfing with Sharks?

Seals  –  those cute, semi-aquatic marine mammals hunted for generations by humans may be about to wreak their revenge.  While we don’t want to get into the pros and cons of the cull, we would like to warn our readers of a new strain of flu found in New England harbor seals.

According to experts, seal flu could potentially threaten people as well as wildlife. In a report just published online in mBio, scientists from several organizations, including Columbia University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that seal flu could lead to another pandemic just as we saw with bird and swine flu.

There is a concern that we have a new mammalian-transmissible virus to which humans haven’t been exposed yet. It’s a combination we haven’t seen in disease before,” said Anne Moscona MD, professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

A dangerous virus infecting mammals increases the risk to us – not by direct infection – but by evolutionary development of even more riskier strains,” explained Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y.

Although transmission via direct contact between humans and harbor seals is unlikely, the virus could find other ways to get to people.  For example, the strain might pass from seals to birds, expand its presence in the environment.  And because seal flu is able to target a protein found in the human respiratory tract, it may have the potential to mutate in ways that make it easily passed to or between humans.

The researchers analyzed the DNA of a virus linked to the death of 162 harbor seals in 2011 off the coasts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Five autopsies revealed that the seals died from infection with a type of flu known as H3N8.

Because pandemic flu can originate in unexpected ways, preparation is essential. The Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) offers some excellent tips on its website.

And we suggest for this year at least you might be better off diving with dolphins than swimming with seals!

 

 

 

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Fighting flu in just two hours

As we approach midsummer, while most of us are enjoying days at the pool or beach and long evenings of grilling out, a few people have already begun the countdown to winter frosts and flu season.

For those in the latter group, SRxA’s Word on Health brings you good news!

Researchers from San Diego State University and Nebraska Medical Center have developed a synthetic protein known as EP67 that can fight off flu, in just two hours.

Until recently, EP67 had been used as an adjuvant for vaccines. When added to a vaccine, adjuvants help to activate the immune system. Which led scientists to wonder what effect the synthetic protein might have on its own?

Dr. Joy Phillips, lead author, said: “The flu virus is very sneaky and actively keeps the immune system from detecting it for a few days until you are getting symptoms. Our research showed that  introducing EP67 into the body within 24 hours of exposure to the flu virus caused the immune system to react almost immediately to the threat, well before your body normally would.”

EP67 is useful as a weapon against flu because it works on the immune system rather than the virus.  So it doesn’t matter which flu strain a patient becomes infected with.  If a new strain of flu or some other infectious disease appears, such as occurred with SARA and H1N1, EP67 could be useful as a tool even before the pathogen itself has been identified.

And even though this study concentrated on the benefits of EP67 for flu, researchers are hopeful that it might also be useful for combating other respiratory diseases and fungal infections.

Current tests are being done on laboratory animals, mainly mice, by infecting them with an influenza virus and then administering EP67 within 24 hours. They found that the treated mice did not get sick, while the untreated ones did.  Most mice infected with flu will lose approximately 20% of their body weight – this was the case with the untreated mice. The mice given EP67 lost just an average of 6%. Some mice were even given a lethal dose of flu virus, and then administered EP67 – none of them died.

All of this sounds so promising future studies are already planned to look at EP67’s effect on other pathogens and its functions within different types of body cells.

With this type of good news on the way, maybe we can all stop worrying about the winter and get back to enjoying summer before it’s gone!

Fighting Flu

Last night I participated in my annual healthcare lottery. Fortunately for my finances, this didn’t involve scratch cards, ticket stubs or wheel spinning of any kind, nor will it bring me great riches, a new car or a timeshare condo. Instead, if my gamble pays off, I might be spared the flu this winter season.

However, this may be one of the last years that I have to keep my fingers crossed that the vaccine might work.  In future years getting a flu shot may become a safe bet.

In a significant step against the disease that affects billions of people each year, scientists at Oxford University in the UK, just announced that they have successfully tested a universal flu vaccine that could work against all known strains of the illness.

This new vaccine targets a different part of the flu virus to traditional vaccines, meaning it does not need expensive reformulation and guess work  every year to try and match the most prevalent strains of the virus that are circulating the world.

The team, led by Dr Sarah Gilbert at the Jenner Institute, developed a vaccine that targets proteins inside the flu virus that are common across all strains, instead of those that sit on the virus’s external coat, which are liable to mutate.

If used widely, a universal flu vaccine could prevent pandemics, such as the swine flu outbreaks of recent years, and could even end the need for a seasonal flu jab.

A universal vaccine would save the time and money now needed to create vaccines to fight whatever particular virus has emerged in any given year.  The process of developing a seasonal vaccine takes at least four months and if the flu strain is highly pathogenic the delay means people get sick and die before the vaccine is ready.

If we were using the same vaccine year in, year out, it would be more like vaccinating against other diseases like tetanus,” said Gilbert. “It would become a routine vaccination that would be manufactured and used all the time at a steady level. We wouldn’t have these sudden demands or shortages – all that would stop.”

While traditional vaccines prompt the body to create antibodies, Gilbert’s vaccine boosts the number of the body’s T-cells, another key part of the immune system which can identify and destroy cells that have been infected by a virus.

In her trial, Gilbert vaccinated 11 healthy volunteers and then infected them, along with 11 non-vaccinated volunteers, with a strain of flu virus.  She then monitored the volunteers’ symptoms twice a day.  Her results showed that the vaccine worked as planned.

Fewer of the people who were vaccinated got flu than the people who weren’t vaccinated,” said Gilbert. “We did get an indication that the vaccine was protecting people, not only from the numbers of people who got flu but also from looking at their T-cells before we gave them flu. The people we vaccinated had T-cells that were more activated. The people we hadn’t vaccinated had T-cells as well but they were in a resting state so they would probably have taken longer to do anything. The volunteers we vaccinated had T-cells that were activated, primed and ready to kill. There were more T-cells in people we vaccinated and they were more activated.”

The trial proved two important things about the vaccine: First, it showed that it was safe; and second it proved that giving people flu virus in the presence of lots of T-cells induced by the vaccine was absolutely fine.

What we’ll probably do is take the existing flu vaccine and mix in the new virus-vector vaccine, so you get both good antibodies and good T-cells. As well as giving you the antibodies for this season’s strain of flu, we’ll give you some T-cells that will cover this season, next year, and thereafter. It may not be 100% effective against all strains, but at least if there were a pandemic coming around, it would cover you for any strain.”

It is also believed that the vaccine could provide better protection against flu for older people. Traditional flu vaccines are effective in about 70-80% of young people, but only 30-40% of older people, because the older people’s immune systems are less efficient at making new antibodies.

The next step for the new vaccine is a larger scale trial comparing several thousand people who are given and not given the vaccine.

Although that means a commercial product is still some years away, this study represents some potentially very exciting findings not only for flu but possibly for other infectious diseases.

SRxA’s Word on Health looks forward to bringing you this news as it happens.

Universal Flu Vaccine One Step Closer

For the millions of people around the world who suffer each winter from flu, and especially for those with weak immune systems, such as, children, the elderly and pregnant women there is promise of a new “super vaccine.”

Scientists from Switzerland’s Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) just announced that they have isolated and identified a human antibody – F16 –  that can knock out all influenza A viruses. Tests in mice showed it was effective.   This represents an exciting step forward in the hunt for a universal vaccine.

Currently, in what amounts to little more than a scientific lottery, virologists have to play catch-up as they develop a new flu vaccine cocktail each season to match the often-changing strains of the virus.

F16, could help change all that. “The antibody works not only by neutralizing the virus, which we knew, but also by recruiting killer cells to the virus-infected cells,” said Antonio Lanzavecchia, director of IRB.

By observing the human immune response to the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic he became convinced that it would be possible to design a vaccine that prevails over mutation.   “We found some people with antibodies to multiple viral sub-types.” Antibodies, which are produced by white blood cells, bind to specific target sites inactivating viruses or flagging them for destruction by other immune cells.  To test the cross-reactivity of influenza antibodies, the team screened B cells from eight human donors who had been infected with or immunized against different flu strains.  After looking at 104,000 B cells, they hit the jackpot!

Our FI6 antibody is the first one ever found that reacts to all 16 of the influenza A subtypes,” said Lanzavecchia.

Finding antibodies to all strains of one group was exciting,” says immunologist, Patrick Wilson from the University of Chicago, Illinois, who was not involved with the study, “but getting one to both groups is stunning.”

The F16 antibody is not a vaccine, but it could be an instruction manual for making one.  And although the scientists admit that making a new vaccine may take years, they hope that the antibody itself might be used as a treatment in the meantime. So far, tests in animals have shown that when the antibody binds to the virus, it stops it from infecting mammalian cells.

Once tested in a human system, the antibodies should work even better.  However, even reducing the viral load by 10% could help stop people getting sick.

SRxA’s Word on Health looks forward to having one less thing to worry about in winter.

“Ouchless” Flu Vaccine

Instead of getting a BandAid after your flu shot, a new delivery patch could actually allow people to receive their vaccine this way.

The patches contain hundreds of tiny little needles, so small you don’t even feel them, that dissolve into the skin and release the vaccine. The result –  simplified immunization programs. By eliminating the use of needles and syringes, three of the biggest problems simply disappear.

  • fear of needles
  • disposal of leftover needles and syringes
  • the need for trained medical personnel

The microneedle patches are applied like a BandAid and could allow self-administration of vaccine during pandemics as well as in schools and assisted-living facilities.  They could also simplify large-scale immunization programs in developing nations.

Researchers led by Professor Mark Prausnitz of Georgia Institute of Technology reported their research on microneedles in Sunday’s edition of Nature Medicine.

The business side of the patch apparently feels like fine sandpaper. In tests,  people rated the discomfort at 1/10th – 1/20th that of getting a standard injection. In other words, nearly everyone said it was painless.

The patch, which has been tested on mice, was developed in collaboration by researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University. The work was supported by the National Institute of Health. The researchers are now seeking funds to begin tests in people and, if all goes well, the patch could be in use in five years.

Flu vaccination is recommended for nearly everyone, every year. According to Prausnitz, “Many people don’t get the shot because it’s inconvenient, but if they could get it in the mail or at the pharmacy they might do so.” The patch is placed on the skin and left for 5  to 15 minutes although it can remain longer without doing any damage.

Asked if the term “microneedle” might still frighten some folks averse to shots, Prausnitz said he was confident that marketers would come up with a better term before any sales began.

SRxA’s Word on Health challenges you to come up with some creative ideas.