Friday, August 10, 2007

New vaccine may beat bird flu before it starts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Researchers studying bird flu viruses said on Thursday they may have come up with a way to vaccinate people before a feared influenza pandemic.

Experts have long said there is no way to vaccinate people against a new strain of influenza until that strain evolves. That could mean months or even years of disease and death before a vaccination campaign began.

But a team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland and the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta said they may have found a short-cut.

The vaccine might protect people against the mutation that would change the H5N1 avian flu virus from a germ affecting mostly birds to one that infects people easily, the NIAID's Dr. Gary Nabel and colleagues report in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

"If we can define what changes need to be made to make that jump then we can target the immune system to that spot on the virus," Nabel said in a telephone interview.

"It gives us a chance to develop vaccines or monoclonal antibodies ... to really work in a preemptive way to be prepared."

Monoclonal antibodies, often used against cancer, are engineered immune system proteins that specifically attack proteins on a tumor or, in this case, on the flu virus.

"While nobody knows if and when H5N1 will jump from birds to humans, they have come up with a way to anticipate how that jump might occur and ways to respond to it," National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni said in a statement.

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