COMMENT

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.

Advertisement

Our immune system is designed to recognise and attack foreign invaders like viruses using white blood cells, which learn to detect the 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 different 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