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Llamas may help us fight the flu!

Updated: Nov 13, 2018


According to a paper published recently in the journal Science, a solution for influenza may be right around the corner.



The experiment involved creating a nasal spray using antibodies that could serve as a universal vaccine, stopping the flu, which took the lives of more than 80,000 people in the U.S. last year, alone.


Even better - the proposed solution, which proved effective on mice, would not need to be redesigned each year— nor require a shot, which most people (especially kids) do not like.


So, how does this magical concoction work?


First, we need to look at how vaccines currently work:

  1. Our immune systems have a set of B cells that are able to make antibodies.

  2. These proteins are responsible for identifying the regions where a virus is attacking. Essentially these B cells warn you when there is a dangerous substance inside your body.

  3. Vaccines work by exposing your B cells to a mixture of potential influenza viruses, in order to create antibodies in our bodies before we catch a virus.


Human antibodies identify a part of the influenza virus called hemagglutinin or HA, a protein that allows the virus to attach to a human cell membrane. The problem is that influenza (the flu) can mutate the HA region such that it still functions properly, so those antibodies, may miss it. Ever get a flu shot, but still catch the flu...? This is often why.


The good news is there are parts of the HA molecule that don’t really mutate all that much. The problem is that human antibodies are too large to reach those areas.


What in the world does this have to do with Llamas?


As with many camelids, including camels and alpacas, llamas produce really small antibodies. Because they’re smaller, they can get to those tough to reach places on latch on the HA protein that are don't mutate as often, and help kill the influenza much more efficiently.


Does it work?


The researchers in conducting the experiment created a synthetic antibody that’s a combination of four different llama antibodies, but they didn’t inject it into the mice like a traditional vaccine. They packaged genetic instructions to make the antibody into a harmless virus, then sprayed that virus into mice noses. The virus then entered the mouse cells and “infected” them with the antibody instructions, prompting their nasal cells to start producing the antibody on their own.


They then divided the test mice into two cohorts.

  1. Mice given a placebo nasal spray

  2. Mice who received high doses of the spray

The mice who go the placebo all died quickly, but the mice who got the highest doses of the real spray all lived.


Right now, our vaccines provide protection against four strains of influenza. This solution could work to protect against them all without the yearly worry of which of the 4 riskiest strains are going around.


Since, most adults in the U.S. and a huge fraction of children currently don’t get their annual flu vaccine, or believe it doesn't work - a nasal spray like this may be able to achieve greater rates of immunity to the flu.


While a spray like this will need much more testing, and could take years to come to market, the potential camelid antibody spray could be help saves thousands of lives each year, claimed by the flu.


In the meantime - please go get your flu shot!