Fighting the flu for 90 years
August 18, 2008 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by an episode of the short-lived TV series Medical Investigation, researchers have found that survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic continue to make antibodies against the virus.
posted by Knappster (12 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I read about this in the newspaper earlier today, but do we know what sort of practical applications they're looking forward to ith this (considering that the 1918 Flu no longer threatens anyone)?
posted by Navelgazer at 9:10 PM on August 18, 2008

Why does the 1918 flu no longer threaten anyone? Is there zero possibility of its resurgence as global warming thaws permafrost where former victims may be shallowly buried?
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:24 PM on August 18, 2008

I don't know whether there's zero possibility of that or not, but I do know what my nightmares will be about for the next couple days.
posted by penduluum at 9:35 PM on August 18, 2008

It isn't that the 1918 flu might come back (although when they toy with any samples, such as the ones recovered from permafrost graves, they're pretty darn careful), it's that the mechanism remains largely a mystery. It's so far outside the norm for flu that 90 years later -- and hundreds of essentially annual flu outbreaks of various strengths -- we worry about becoming complacent. Until the 1990s and the "hot zone" era, particularly with Ebola, we probably were. If one flu can evolve to that level of lethality, another could.
posted by dhartung at 9:45 PM on August 18, 2008

What an interesting investigation with an unusual inspiration.
posted by gomichild at 1:34 AM on August 19, 2008

Are there limits to antibody production?
posted by srboisvert at 3:02 AM on August 19, 2008

Avian flu has some similarities to 1918 flu but even without that, it's a very scary virus. We're lucky it hasn't mutated to full house scary yet. Anything that gives us hope against avian flu should the worst happen is good research. Even finding out, as one article said, that about 10% of people seem to have the genetic predisposition for this kind of immunity - 10% of six and a half billion is still some people surviving.

Also, related to digging up bodies from permafrost is the fear of 1918 terrorism. When you start reading those links about how many people died so quickly, you start realizing what a release of that flu would do. I doubt it'd be national terrorism, since the thing jumps borders so quickly, but it's all too easy to imagine someone like a cross between ELF and Aum Shinrikyo trying to use it.

But what's really, really, really neat about this research is just how long those memory cells lived! NINETY years. Think about that, next time you're going for a painful vaccine booster. We know so little about the immune system, and here we have ninety year old memory cells still chugging along. Plus, it sounds like it was a robust immunity as opposed to say, salmonella or giardia immunity where the pathogen just mutates a flagellum or something and then our body is all "where did it go!" ...
posted by arabelladragon at 6:49 AM on August 19, 2008

I'm going to show my ignorance here but I've never understood how the flu kills. I mean no one dies from a cold unless they're already immunocompromised and death is usually from pneumonia, which I've always thought was also true of the flu. What does the flu do to the body that actually causes death?
posted by shoesietart at 10:49 AM on August 19, 2008

What does the flu do to the body that actually causes death?

The more specific question might be, "What did the 1918 flu do to the body that other flu viruses did not and have not since then".

This article explains it a bit and so does this NYTimes article.
Wikipedia, of course, has an entry from which you can glean info.

Basically, the virus was one the body could not handle. Many died of pneumonia but evidence also suggests that many died from what is called a Cytokine Storm.
posted by Rashomon at 12:20 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

can we exploit this finding and finally develop an effective AIDS vaccine?
posted by brandz at 7:25 PM on August 19, 2008

And to think my family thought I was crazy for my extensive collection of octogenarian blood.

posted by codswallop at 10:58 PM on August 19, 2008

Brandz, I am not an immunologist, but from what I understand of the HIV vaccine efforts, it's a far more complex problem than any kind of flu vaccine. This news doesn't really tell us much about the mechanisms of the immune system for fighting an infection, just the lifespan of the memory cells. In other words, this may lead to new vaccine schedules, and broader spectrum flu vaccines.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:28 PM on August 20, 2008

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