*heavy-sigh*

HIV Research World is infecting other fields:

A Highly Conserved Neutralizing Epitope on Group 2 Influenza A Viruses

Media coverage of referenced paper:

Discovery of Natural Antibody Brings a Universal Flu Vaccine a Step Closer

No, it doesnt. Unless if by ‘universal flu vaccine’ you actually mean ‘gene therapy for everyone instead of flu shots’.

Look, heres what happens– Scientists sift through thousands and thousands and thousands of B-cells, the cells that make antibodies, and ID ones that make antibodies that are really good at neutralizing lots of different kinds of influenza or HIV.

What you have out the end is a neat laboratory reagent.

You do not have a potential vaccine.

That is because everyones immune system is random, at its core. Random mutation and natural selection in response to a pathogen. Now, you will make antibodies to protect you against chickenpox, and I will make antibodies to protect me against chickenpox, but our antibodies will be totally different. You cannot make two different people generate identical antibodies to an identical pathogen or vaccine, even identical twins. You certainly cannot make people generate a specific antibody unless you are doing it via gene therapy.

I will say that at least with a Super Awesome influenza antibody, that could at least be helpful as a therapy in emergency situations. For instance, someone who is bitten by a rabid bat gets passive immunotherapy in the form of ‘medical’ antibodies against the rabies virus. These arent antibodies that the infected person made, they are antibodies made in a lab or in a horse injected with a viral protein. The same principle might work in people infected with a severe form of influenza, or a drug resistant influenza, or maybe someone who is just very old or young and cant deal with the virus on their own. A passively administered Super Awesome antibody might be a nifty trick for MDs to have up their sleeves.

So finding a couple antibodies that are REALLY good at neutralizing influenza is really cool, but it has nothing to do with vaccines. And its not the scientists fault its getting spun like this, its not like they misspoke or are delusional. The scientists on this paper understand what they found and what it means:

“This would mainly be useful as a fast-acting therapy against epidemic or pandemic influenza viruses,” said Wilson. “The ultimate goal is an active vaccine that elicits a robust, long-term antibody response against those vulnerable epitopes; but developing that is going to be a challenging task.”

Why the headline for that piece is ‘Discovery of Natural Antibody Brings a Universal Flu Vaccine a Step Closer’ is beyond me *rolleyes*

MEDIA! Y U NO LISTEN TO THE SCIENTISTS YOU INTERVIEW??

H/T to my facebook buddy Kevin!

Comments

  1. #1 Carl Zimmer
    July 11, 2011

    This media guy appreciates your clarification! I will point out, however, that you shouldn’t be singling out the media in this case. The Science Daily piece you link to comes, practically unchanged, from the Scripps Research Institute’s own press release: http://www.scripps.edu/news/press_releases/20110707wilson.html

  2. #2 Justicar
    July 11, 2011

    Remember, I’m not a biologist, so don’t laugh too hard.

    But, you wrote, “So finding a couple antibodies that are REALLY good at neutralizing influenza is really cool, but it has nothing to do with vaccines.”

    I don’t understand how isolating the things that good at neutralizing influenza wouldn’t be at all useful in a vaccine. I get that my immune system and your immune system are different, and randomly so. But if your influenza and my influenza aren’t that different, wouldn’t the same neutralizing agent have the ability to neutralize equally well in both of us?

    Or is there something about our bodies which would just make it not workable to have on hand the influenza neutralizing thing? I guess I just don’t get the predicate difference between “vaccine” and “neutralizing antibody” to which you refer. Doesn’t one produce the other?

  3. #3 W. Kevin Vicklund
    July 11, 2011

    Doesn’t one produce the other?

    No. That’s the whole point of the post – you can’t force someone, via vaccine, to produce a specific neutralizing antibody. At best, you could give them a short-term antibody made in the lab, but that won’t be reproduced by the body. Essentially, you’d have to get shots every three weeks or so during flu season for it to be effective. Or alternatively, you could use gene therapy to force their body to make the antibody, but that isn’t a vaccine (and there are lots of issues with that process).

  4. #4 Justicar
    July 11, 2011

    Thank you, W. Kevin Vicklund.

    The time component is what I think was throwing me off; the neutralizing agent wouldn’t be kept in the body and hence, not an effective vaccine.

    I think I’m on the same page with you now.

  5. #5 davidp
    July 11, 2011

    My layman’s understanding it that the claim is that there are preserved epitopes on the Influenza A virus that are useful antibody targets, so _if_ they can produce a vaccine that contains that epitope only/mostly, and trigger a response to that epitope, then we get a better influenza A vaccine. Finding appropriate neutralising epitopes is a first step to such a vaccine. Other steps may be taller than Everest. I get this partly from “The ultimate goal is an active vaccine that elicits a robust, long-term antibody response against those vulnerable epitopes”

    I think that is where the headline phrase “Brings a Universal Flu Vaccine a Step Closer” comes from.

    I’d say this was normally mangled media reporting, not mega-mangled, based on the usual closing lines of “could cure cancer/prevent global terrorism/save the world/make sliced bread obsolete” possible applications that people like to put at the end of papers and press releases.

  6. #6 Chris
    July 12, 2011

    Y’all are overthinking this. As the Science Daily piece and one of the commenters use the word “vaccine,” it means “treatment” or “cure.”

    Of course, it means more like “a molecule or set of molecules that cause an organism’s immune system to manufacture antibodies that specifically stick to it or them. And these antibodies are often great for combating structurally related disease agents.”

    To those of us who know a smidgen about vaccines (and that’s about the extent of my knowledge, truly), it’s obvious that injecting a super-great antibody into a person doesn’t cause that person’s immune system to manufacture these antibodies on its own. Your regular reader (and perhaps Science Daily writer) probably doesn’t realize that. Or is maybe in too great a hurry to make the distinction.

  7. #7 Peter English
    July 16, 2011

    Well, actually… Lots of vaccines DO involve giving antigens, perhaps combined with something (an “adjuvant”) that stimulates the immune system to respond to it more vigorously, and the body then produces antibodies to the antigen that then prevent illness caused by microbes with that antigen…

    That’s not to say it will work every time, for every antigen, The problems producing a vaccine for group B meningococcus demonstrate this. And it’s not to say that each individual will produce identical antibodies.

    There’s a long way to go before the discovery of highly conserved influenza antigens will lead to clinically useful vaccines. They may never do so; but their discovery is exciting, and could lead to universal vaccines.

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