Llamas Could Help Protect Us from the Flu

A study found that the fluffy mammal’s antibodies are highly effective in defending against different strains of the influenza virus.

Each year, thousands of Americans are infected with the flu, but new research published in Science suggests that this rate could decline with the help of one fluffy, South African mammal: llamas. 

As part of the study, a team of researchers at Scripps Research in California infected llamas with various strains of the flu, causing their immune systems to produce antibodies, or molecules that recognize and work to remove foreign substances, like viruses, from your body. The team then extracted four of the strongest antibodies from the llamas, fused them together to form one large molecule, and delivered this synthetic antibody blend into mice via injection or a nasal spray, which sent a harmless virus carrying the genetic blueprint of the llama antibodies into mouse cells. Upon exposure to 60 different strains of influenza A and B, the rodents were fully protected from all but one — a variation of the bird flu that doesn’t inflict humans. 

"Having a treatment that can work across a range of different strains of the virus is highly sought after,” said Jonathan Ball, a professor at the University of Nottingham. “It's the Holy Grail of influenza.”

Despite llamas' giant size, their antibodies are tiny compared to humans', which is the key to protecting against numerous, ever-mutating flu strains. Because of their magnitude, human antibodies can attack only the tips of the virus — the part that mutates most easily — but llamas antibodies are just one-tenth of the size, allowing them to squeeze their way deeper into the invading bug and strike on areas that can’t evolve. 

Seasonal flu vaccines produced today contain pieces of neutralized influenza viruses, which encourage the body to produce antibodies that will attack the strain upon contact in daily life. But this llama-based style of defense would forgo immune system training altogether, possibly improving the elderly’s ability to ward off the virus; research has shown that people’s immune systems deteriorate and produce fewer antibodies with age, reducing the effectiveness of typical vaccines and making them more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections.

The success of a flu shot also depends on how well the vaccine’s neutralized virus matches the strains of influenza being spread. The virus, however, can mutate faster than the rate our antibodies can adapt, so a vaccine that works one season may not the next. But Ian Wilson, a biochemist from Scripps Research who co-led the project, says this novel technique “could potentially be used as a preventive treatment from year to year and protect against both seasonal flu as well as potential pandemics, such as bird flu.” And as research progresses and further developments are made in creating this potential universal vaccine, now-agonizing flu seasons may become no prob-llama. 

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