Colds and flu

Updated 04 July 2014

Flu virus attacks antibody production

A new study of mice may offer some insight into how the flu virus succeeds at infecting so many people.


If you've ever wondered how the flu virus succeeds at infecting so many people, a new study of mice may offer some insight.

The flu actually targets cells of the immune system that are best able to disarm the virus, according to the study. These first responders, known as memory B cells, produce antibodies that can bind to the virus and neutralise it. These cells also reside in the lung where they can protect against re-exposure to the virus.

Memory B cells

Researchers found, however, that the flu virus attacks these memory B cells first to disrupt antibody production, allowing it to replicate more efficiently and prevent the immune system from mounting a second defence.

"We can now add this to the growing list of ways that the flu virus has to establish infection," study co-author Joseph Ashour, a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, said in an institute news release.

"This is how the virus gains a foothold," study co-author Stephanie Dougan, also a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Whitehead member Hidde Ploegh, explained in the news release. "The virus targets memory cells in the lung, which allows infection to be established – even if the immune system has seen this flu before."

Memory B cells, which have virus-specific receptors, are difficult to isolate. To address this issue, the researchers attached a fluorescent label to the flu virus, which allowed them to identify flu-specific B cells. They then used a cloning technique to create a line of mice with virus-specific B cells and cell receptors.

Immunological models

The study authors suggested that the infectious process of the flu is probably used by other viruses as well. "We can now make highly effective immunological models for a variety of pathogens," Dougan concluded. "This is actually a perfect model for studying memory immune cells."

Scientists note, however, that research with animals often fails to produce similar results in humans.

"This is research that could help with rational vaccine design, leading to more effective vaccines for seasonal flu," Ashour said. "It might even suggest novel strategies for conferring immunity."

The study was recently published in the journal Nature.

More information

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has more about flu.

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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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