How lla­mas can help us live longer

Weekend Herald - - Science&Tech -

Catch­ing the flu is an in­con­ve­nience filled with fevers, body aches and nasal con­ges­tion. For most of us the symp­toms pass af­ter a few days, but for some it can be fa­tal — the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion at­tributes the flu to up to 650,000 deaths each year.

New strains of flu ap­pear each sea­son mean­ing that flu vac­cines con­stantly have to be mod­i­fied to keep up. How­ever, new re­search sug­gests the key to com­bat­ting in­fluenza could be helped by that cute, fluffy mam­mal the llama.

When your body comes un­der at­tack from a virus it launches a de­fence us­ing the im­mune sys­tem.

Our im­mune sys­tem is de­signed to recog­nise and at­tack for­eign in­vaders like viruses us­ing white blood cells, which learn to de­tect and at­tack the germs. To do this, a type of white blood cell called a “B lym­pho­cyte” pro­duces spe­cial pro­teins or an­ti­bod­ies that bind to a virus to stop it from repli­cat­ing.

To be ef­fec­tive at recog­nis­ing and at­tack­ing a spe­cific virus, the body needs an­ti­bod­ies that are the ex­act shape and size to fit and lock on to the pro­teins on the out­side of a virus. This spe­cific fit is sim­i­lar to how two jig­saw puz­zle pieces click to­gether.

Vac­cines help to pro­tect us against viruses by in­tro­duc­ing a harm­less, neu­tralised ver­sion of the virus into the body that helps our im­mune sys­tem to de­velop an­ti­bod­ies which fit per­fectly into these viruses. That way, when a real in­fec­tion does come, our body is al­ready pre­pared and can recog­nise and at­tack the virus im­me­di­ately.

Most of the vac­cines that we re­ceive in child­hood pro­tect us for life, how­ever it’s ad­vised that a new flu shot is re­ceived each year. This is be­cause the flu virus mu­tates quickly, chang­ing the shape of the pro­teins on the out­side of the virus to the point that our an­ti­bod­ies don’t im­me­di­ately recog­nise the new form, leav­ing us vul­ner­a­ble to in­fec­tion.

Each sea­son a new flu vac­cine is cre­ated, de­signed to help the body make an­ti­bod­ies that lock on to strains of flu virus which are pre­dicted to be the most com­mon in the up­com­ing sea­son.

The ideal sit­u­a­tion would be to cre­ate a flu vac­cine that pro­tected peo­ple

for sev­eral years.

New re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence could move us closer to that re­al­ity.

The re­searchers found that lla­mas pro­duce much smaller an­ti­bod­ies than hu­mans — this re­duced size al­lows them to at­tach to the pro­teins in the core of the virus, rather than the ones on the out­side.

Usu­ally, the pro­teins in­side the virus core stay the same be­tween dif­fer­ent strains of flu, mean­ing that lla­mas are much bet­ter equipped to fight dif­fer­ent strains of the in­fluenza virus.

The re­searchers took the strong­est flu an­ti­bod­ies they found in llama blood and used them to cre­ate a syn­thetic an­ti­body.

They then used this to make two pre­ven­ta­tive treat­ments: a stan­dard in­jectable vac­ci­na­tion and a nasal spray con­tain­ing the an­ti­body.

Us­ing mice they tested the ef­fec­tive­ness of the treat­ments against 60 strains of the flu.

They found that in both treat­ments the mice be­gan pro­duc­ing the an­ti­bod­ies them­selves and only one of the strains per­sisted, which thank­fully was a strain that doesn’t in­fect hu­mans.

Although still only in pre­lim­i­nary stages, this new re­search of­fers hope that sci­en­tists could cre­ate a pre­ven­ta­tive treat­ment for sea­sonal flu, as well as po­ten­tial pan­demics such as bird or swine flu.

Be­ing de­liv­er­able through a nasal spray — a form which can sur­vive for longer with­out re­frig­er­a­tion — also cre­ates the abil­ity to de­liver this type of an­ti­body to re­mote ar­eas more eas­ily. Who knew, the se­cret to liv­ing longer could ac­tu­ally lie in the llama.

Dr Michelle Dick­in­son, cre­ator of Nanogirl, is a nan­otech­nol­o­gist who is pas­sion­ate about get­ting Ki­wis hooked on sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing. Tweet her your sci­ence ques­tions @medick­in­son

Photo / AP

Lla­mas are much bet­ter equipped than hu­mans to fight dif­fer­ent strains of the in­fluenza virus.

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