Recovering antibodies from 1918 flu pandemic survivors

Nov 11, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Ninety years after the sweeping destruction of the 1918 flu pandemic, researchers at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt have recovered antibodies to the virus — from elderly survivors of the original outbreak.

In addition to revealing the surprisingly long-lasting immunity to such viruses, these antibodies could be effective treatments to have on hand if another virus similar to the 1918 flu breaks out in the future.

The study, led by James Crowe Jr., professor of Pediatrics and director of the Vanderbilt Program in Vaccine Sciences, and colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, was published online in the journal Nature.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed nearly 50 million people worldwide, many of whom were young, healthy adults.

With fears of another looming flu pandemic stoked by the emergence of bird flu in Asia, researchers have wanted to study the 1918 virus and the immune response to it.

In 2005, researchers from Mount Sinai and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., resurrected the 1918 virus from the bodies of people killed in the outbreak. The bodies, and the virus, had been preserved in the permanently frozen soil of Alaska.

When the investigators approached Crowe, whose lab had developed methods of making antibodies, to try to make antibodies to the 1918 flu, he was skeptical, but agreed to try.

The researchers collected blood samples from 32 survivors age 91-101 years and found that all reacted to the 1918 virus, suggesting that they still possessed antibodies to it.

Crowe's team was then able to isolate exceedingly rare B cells — the immune cells that produce antibodies — from eight of those samples and grow them in culture.

Seven of those samples produced antibodies to a 1918 virus protein, suggesting that their immune systems were waiting on standby for a long-awaited second outbreak.

"The B cells have been waiting for at least 60 years — if not 90 years — for that flu to come around again,” Crowe said.

"That's amazing...because it's the longest memory anyone's ever demonstrated.”

Crowe's team then fused cells showing the highest levels of activity against the virus with "immortal” cells to create a cell line that secretes monoclonal (or identical) antibodies to the 1918 flu.

The antibodies reacted strongly to the 1918 virus and cross-reacted with proteins from the related 1930 swine flu, but not to more modern flu strains.

To test if these antibodies still work against 1918 flu in a living animal, Crowe's collaborators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infected mice with the 1918 flu and then administered the antibodies at varying doses.

Mice receiving the lowest dose of 1918 antibody — and those receiving a non-reactive "control” antibody — died. All mice given the highest doses of 1918 antibodies survived.

Although aging typically causes immunity to weaken, "these are some of the most potent antibodies ever isolated against a virus,” Crowe said.

"They're the best antibodies I've ever seen.”

The findings suggest that B cells responding to a viral infection — and the antibody-based immunity that results — may last a lifetime, even nine or more decades after exposure.

These antibodies could be used as potential treatments for future outbreaks of flu strains similar to the 1918 virus.

And the technology could be used to develop antibodies against other viruses, like HIV.

Most importantly, said Crowe, "the lessons we are learning about the 1918 flu tell us a lot about what may happen during a future pandemic.”

Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School also contributed to the study.

The work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Provided by Vanderbilt University

Explore further: US scientists make embryonic stem cells from adult skin

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

1918 flu antibodies resurrected from elderly survivors

Aug 17, 2008

Ninety years after the sweeping destruction of the 1918 flu pandemic, researchers at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt have recovered antibodies to the virus – from elderly survivors of the original outbreak.

Research team finds structure of 'swine flu' virus

Mar 24, 2010

A team of scientists from The Scripps Research Institute and other institutions has solved the structure of a key protein from the virus that caused last year's "swine flu" influenza epidemic. The structure reveals that the ...

Recommended for you

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

Apr 18, 2014

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...

New pain relief targets discovered

Apr 17, 2014

Scientists have identified new pain relief targets that could be used to provide relief from chemotherapy-induced pain. BBSRC-funded researchers at King's College London made the discovery when researching ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cancer stem cells linked to drug resistance

Most drugs used to treat lung, breast and pancreatic cancers also promote drug-resistance and ultimately spur tumor growth. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have discovered ...

Easter morning delivery for space station

Space station astronauts got a special Easter treat: a cargo ship full of supplies. The shipment arrived Sunday morning via the SpaceX company's Dragon cargo capsule.