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!

Kicking Up A (cytokine) Storm

The New Year brings with it many new possibilities, including, unfortunately a new flu season.

So far, the number of flu cases in 2012 is down, thanks largely to the unprecedented mild weather over most of the US. A sharp contrast to 2009 when H1N1 (or swine flu) killed more than 18,000 people worldwide or 1918 when the flu virus infected around a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people.

New research shows that the reason so many people died in both of those years wasn’t the influenza virus itself, but the immune system’s reaction to it.  It turns out that the virus destroys its host by turning the body’s own defenses against itself.

While trying to destroy flu-infected cells, your immune system also destroys legions of perfectly healthy cells all over your body. This is why, even though the virus itself rarely ventures outside the lungs, the symptoms of the flu are so widespread” says , Michael Oldstone, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

Most of the time this immune response isn’t too severe. As the virus runs its course, the response subsides. But in some cases, an infection can trigger a reaction so destructive it can be fatal. Scientists call this a cytokine storm, because of the violent way immune cells respond to a virus. Cytokines usually help fight off infections by telling the immune system which specific viral cells it should be attacking, but sometimes an overabundance of cytokines floods into a part of the body, and that’s when you get a storm.

Cytokine storms are rare, but they may be more common among younger people because they have stronger immune systems, and are more prone to overreactions. This may explain one of the more surprising outcomes of the 2009 swine flu: that it was deadlier among young people than it was among the elderly.

Cytokine storms can cause serious damage throughout the body, especially in the lungs, which is why most flu deaths are attributed to pneumonia.

After 5 years of research, Oldstone and his colleagues have identified a cell — they call S1P1 – that responds to cytokines. More importantly they’ve also figured out how to turn off that cell’s signals. This could pave the way for a new class of immune-reaction-blocking drugs that could provide protection against cytokine storms and be more effective than antiviral drugs.

Cytokine-blocking drugs could target the flu effects that cause the most damage to the body and would avoid the problems of virus mutation because they don’t affect the virus itself.

Still, it will probably be many years before those drugs reach your local pharmacy. Although preliminary experiments in mice have shown very promising results they still have to replicate these in ferrets, then primates and finally, humans.

Do you have any flu stories to share? SRxA’s Word on Health would love to hear from you.

Return of the Andromeda Strain?

The discovery of an exotic, infectious virus reveals leads to treatments for common lung diseases. Sounds like the plot of a new sci-fi novel turned movie?  Beautiful scientists battling a new superbug from outer space!

Not so, this one is all home grown and 100% non-fiction. According to the CDC, there have been three recent outbreaks of monkeypox in the United States.

Monkeypox is a rare viral disease that occurs mainly in the rain forest countries of central and west Africa. First discovered in laboratory monkeys in 1958, it has since shown up in rodents, squirrels, mice, rats, and rabbits. In 1970, monkeypox was reported in humans for the first time and in June 2003, the first documented infection occurred in the United States, most likely from imported pet prairie dogs.

Monkeypox infections in humans have been on the rise. Up to 10% of those infected, die of the disease. It can be caught from infected rodents, pets and monkeys and is thought to be transmitted by respiratory droplets during direct and prolonged face-to-face contact. Researchers attribute the rise of monkeypox infections to the end of smallpox vaccinations, which provided protection due to the similar nature of the two pox viruses.

Signs and symptoms of infection include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, a general feeling of discomfort, and exhaustion. Within 1 to 3 days (sometimes longer) after the appearance of fever, the patient develops a papular rash. Death, when it occurs, is generally due to pneumonia.

But until now there have been few studies to look at how monkeypox infection damages the lungs. In the latest study, researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center infected macaque monkeys with the virus and followed the course of infection in the lungs of individual animals.

What they found was not only does the infection from monkeypox virus increase production of inflammatory proteins, it also decreases production of proteins that keep lung tissue intact and lubricated.

Going into this study, we thought monkeypox caused disease primarily by inducing inflammation in the lung, and that leads to pneumonia,” said lead author Joseph Brown, a systems biologist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “We were surprised to see how badly the virus wrecked the structural integrity of the lungs.”

The results suggest that inflammation contributes to disease but it may not be the main component. Interfering with the structural proteins may play a major role.

Ultimately, this type of research could have wider implications than viral infection. “This study serves as a great reference for pulmonary diseases,” said co-author Josh Adkins. “It opens up the doors for other lung fluid studies.”

If these results can be reproduced in people, doctors might be able to give surfactants – lubricating chemicals that aid in gas exchange – to help the lung function in patients with altogether more common diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema or even flu.

As always, SRxA’s Word on Health will keep you informed of all developments.

Not so Rotten Eggs!

As someone who stood in line for 3 hours to receive my H1N1 vaccine last year, only to be turned away by an officious clipboard wielding nurse, this Word on Health blogger just had an “I told you so” moment!

According to new recommendations by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), anyone with a history of suspected egg allergy should first be evaluated by an allergist or immunologist for appropriate testing and diagnosis but can probably receive the vaccination.

Matthew J. Greenhawt, M.D., and James T. Li, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic, have co-authored the guidelines based on recent studies that show that even the most egg-allergic individuals can receive the flu vaccine safely under the care of their allergist/immunologist.

As I know only too well, in the past, people with egg allergy were told they could not have the flu vaccine because it contained egg protein which could potentially trigger an allergic reaction. However new research shows that not only do flu vaccines contain only tiny amounts of egg protein, the vast majority people with egg allergies don’t react.  Indeed it seems that many people with diagnosed or suspected egg allergy can receive the influenza vaccination successfully, if simple precautions are followed.

These include:

  • Anyone with a history of suspected egg allergy should first be evaluated by an allergist or immunologist for appropriate testing and diagnosis
  • Patients with a confirmed egg allergy can then receive the vaccine safely using one of two protocols: a two-step graded challenge or a single, age-appropriate dose

It is not necessary to withhold influenza vaccination from egg-allergic patients,” says Greenhawt. “Our recommendations provide two flexible approaches to vaccination. Each approach is backed with recent evidence that it is safe. Most allergists should be able to identify with one of our recommended approaches and, as such, be able to vaccinate their egg-allergic patients with confidence.”

So, Nah! Nah! Na! Nah! Nah! to you officious nurse.  Who has egg on their face now?

Do you have vaccine stories to share?  Word on Health would like to hear them.