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Blood from Bird Flu Survivors Provides Breakthrough in Treatment of H5N1

US researchers report that antibodies extracted from the blood of bird flu survivors have helped cure mice infected with the dreaded H5N1 bird flu virus.

Scientists have long suspected that culling immune-system molecules from survivors could provide a new therapy for the hard-to-treat H5N1 flu strain.

If the research pans out, it could be possible to stockpile these antibodies, the immune system's search-and-destroy force, as an additional way to treat or even prevent H5N1 in case the worrisome flu strain ever mutates to spark a worldwide epidemic.

The research started when four Vietnamese adults who survived bouts of H5N1 in 2004 agreed to donate blood to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in Ho Chi Minh City.

At Switzerland's Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Dr. Antonio Lanzavecchia created a way to cull antibody-producing cells from the blood and keep them churning out the molecules in laboratory dishes.

In the U.S., the National Institute of Health's Dr. Kanta Subbarao tested thousands of those antibodies to tease out the handful able to kill H5N1. They were purified to better target the virus.

Then came the real tests: Subbarao's lab infected mice with H5N1. Some were given the antibodies before they were exposed, others after they already were infected; still others were given antibodies that target different diseases, not influenza.

Mice given the non-H5N1 antibodies died. The H5N1-targeting antibodies protected mice, both when they were administered as a vaccine-like preventive or after infection. Importantly, they worked against both the same 2004 strain that the people had survived and against a different H5N1 strain that circulated in 2005.

The work is reported Monday in the online journal PLoS-Medicine.

"Obviously we're interested and excited about this potential," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health
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