As international fears of a swine flu pandemic rise, OMRF is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat the outbreak.
Swine flu is a respiratory virus that normally affects only pigs, but it has spread to humans in Mexico, the United States and several other countries. There are already 40 confirmed cases of swine flu in the U.S. In Mexico, there have been 26 confirmed cases and 7 deaths, although the actual death toll could rise to 149 or higher when final laboratory results become available.
This weekend, the CDC enlisted OMRF immunologists Linda Thompson, Ph.D., and Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., to use their expertise to help gather antibodies against the virus. These types of proteins, which are manufactured by the immune system to fight infection, represent a key weapon as health officials search for effective ways to quickly diagnose and fight a possibly deadly swine flu outbreak.
“This version of the flu is caused by a pig virus that is only distantly related to human viruses included in recent versions of the seasonal influenza vaccine,” Thompson said. “This means that the protection afforded by yearly influenza vaccinations may not be optimal.” However, she said, “The good news is that this newly emergent strain of swine flu appears to be responsive to treatment with the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu.”
The swine flu is an H1N1 virus, named for the types of proteins on the surface of the virus. OMRF has produced 67 antibodies that bind to H1N1 viruses—and, thus, are potentially useful in the diagnosis and treatment of swine flu.
OMRF yesterday began shipping antibodies it had produced to the CDC, the US government agency charged with studying and preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Shipments of OMRF antibodies to the Atlanta-based CDC will continue today.
“The human body manufactures antibodies and memory cells when the immune system comes into contact with a virus,” said Thompson, who holds the Putnam City Schools Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research at OMRF. “When someone is given a vaccine for flu, it contains purified parts of the virus, which spurs the immune system to create the right antibodies to defend against a full-strength viral attack and also to make memory cells. If a real flu infection happens later, the memory cells wake up and start making antibodies to combat the virus.”
Using a method developed at OMRF, scientists can isolate the genes encoding those antibodies and create an unlimited supply of them in the lab. This research is supported by the National Institutes of Health and is done in collaboration with Gillian Air, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and Patrick Wilson, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago.
“In the last year, we’ve created another 29 flu antibodies, which we’re testing against the H1N1 virus,” Thompson said. “If any of those bind to the virus, we’ll send them to the CDC as well.”
The CDC hopes to use the antibodies to create a rapid diagnostic test to allow doctors to quickly determine if patients have the new strain of swine flu. If any of the antibodies neutralize the virus, it could be put into mass production to provide passive immunity to healthcare workers and to treat those with the most serious cases of swine flu.