Biology / Health / Medicine / Science

Llama vs flu

I know the title of this post seems whimsical, but for really real, a group of researchers think we might actually be able to make a persistent flu vaccine — as opposed to the seasonal kind we can already produce — thanks to llamas.

The way an ordinary flu vaccine works is by guesswork. It’s really like figuring out what the weather is going to be for the next week, except you’re talking about millions of flu virus particles, millions of people, the whole world, and the entirety of the flu season. So it’s much harder than figuring out the weather.

As with most bacteria and viruses, there are particular targets on a flu virus that help our body recognise it, and it’s those defences that the flu vaccine is essentially ‘training’ once you’ve received it. The key targets are molecules called haemagglutinin and neuraminidase, and it’s those that give influenza viruses that vaguely familiar shorthand: H1N1, H5N1, etc. That means ‘haemagglutinin type 1, neuraminidase type 1’, etc, and is a way of identifying a strain.

The problem is, those targets are changing constantly. Influenza is highly adaptive, partially through changing those targets on its surface, and mutations are random, so with the best will in the world they can still surprise us — and a vaccine that targets the predominant strain one year will have absolutely no effect on the other.

That’s where llama blood comes in. It turns out that llamas create really small antibodies — much smaller than ours, which can target haemaglutinin and neuraminidase. The llama antibodies can target deeper into the flu virus molecules, to a part that they can’t change as readily.

Now, don’t jump for joy yet. It’s far from being ready to replace the seasonal flu vaccine: it’s not ready for widespread human use at all. But it is an innovative approach (llamas! how did they come up with that) and it’s a very interesting prospect if it can be done at the right kind of scale.

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