Most of us avoid Walgreens like the plague, avoiding eye contact and furiously shaking our heads when the pharmacy tech politely asks, “Would you like a free flu vaccine?”
It’s never fun to volunteer to have a needle shoved into your arm nor is it always very useful. Our current flu vaccine covers four different types of flu strains. There are as many as 144 strains sneaking around this world. But there may be a way to guard ourselves against each and every one of those, and the answer has llamas everywhere slightly creeped out.
Human antibodies fail when it comes to influenza
Well, it’s really not our antibodies’ fault that they aren’t always able to recognize influenza. It’s the protein that the different strains carry that’s the real issue. This protein, called hemagglutinin or HA, is what our bodies recognize as the flu. Unfortunately, this protein has the ability to mutate in order to combat our antibodies.
However, there are smaller parts of the HA protein that do not mutate, but our antibodies are too large to latch on and begin to fight off the proteins. This is when the llamas save the day. Their antibodies are much tinier, allowing them to latch on to the non-mutated parts of the HA protein. This means that every single HA protein is recognized, regardless of the strain it has mutated into.
From llamas to mice
Researchers tested this theory on mice. They gathered the antibodies into a simple nasal spray, administered the spray, and proceeded to infect the mice with lethal levels of the influenza virus. Some mice received a placebo spray, others a mid-level spray, and the final mice a higher-level spray.
Those who were given the placebo spray died within a matter of weeks. The mid-level receivers faired much better, with only a few subjects dying after a couple of weeks. Those who received the full dosage survived and thrived past the trials.
From llamas to mice to humans
Technically, this isn’t a vaccine at all. With vaccines, our bodies must re-train our cells in order to combat viruses. With this nasal spray, our bodies would acquire these antibodies, pre-packed with tiny fists to take out any flu mutation.
This would be a win for older individuals and children, who struggle with weaker immune systems that are tougher to be re-trained. Much more time will be dedicated to this research. The human equivalent to the mouse nasal spray may not even be possible. But if it is, it will make a huge difference for millions of lives.