"These antibodies do not replace the flu vaccine," Marasco said. "But the exciting part is, this gives us a new approach to vaccine development. This is a new area that is highly conserved, and the viruses do not appear to easily undergo change in their genetic code to escape the antibodies directed against them."
If a vaccine could be developed to target this area in the virus, he said, it might offer long-term protection.
The study is published in the Feb. 22 online edition of Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.
In their research, Marasco and his colleagues identified 10 monoclonal antibodies that can bind with a protein in flu viruses that is needed to allow the virus to enter other cells. The antibodies effectively blocked the ability of the virus to enter other cells.
In addition, the researchers showed that the antibodies protected mice from getting the N5N1 avian flu, which many scientists believe could cause a worldwide flu pandemic. The last flu pandemic occurred in 1918, killing an estimated 40 million people worldwide and 500,000 in the United States alone.
The new monoclonal antibodies were also effective against the 1918 flu strain, Marasco said. More importantly, they were effective against a number of common seasonal flu strains as well.
The next step is to test the antibodies in ferrets, which are commonly used to test new influenza treatments. Marasco said that drugs using these antibodies could be in human clinical trails as early as 2011.
Peter Palese, chairman of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of an accompanying journal editorial, is cautious about the immediate clinical implications of this finding.
"If you have an antibody that is effective against
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