Each year in the United States, seasonal influenza, or flu, kills more than 36,000 people and hospitalizes 200,000 more. The flu sweeps through communities, creating an epidemic. Seasonal flu outbreaks are an unfortunate mainstay of the late fall and winter. Each year, up to 1 in 5 Americans are laid low by the flu. Most get better within a week, but for some the flu and its complications can be life-threatening.
From decades of NIH-funded research, scientists know that some types of flu, the “influenza A” strains, have the potential to be quite dangerous. A few of these strains set off global outbreaks in 1918, 1957, and 1968, fueling fears recently about similar potential for the H1N1 flu that emerged in 2009. Because of the unpredictability of how and when flu emerges—and what impact it will have when it spreads—there is an urgent need to search for new drugs to combat the flu.
By studying the basic biology of flu, NIH-funded researchers recently discovered a type of antibody that neutralizes and protects against several viral subtypes. By gripping onto a common attachment site on the surface of influenza A viruses, these “super”-antibodies appear to prevent the virus from fusing with and entering into human cells.