MENU

Llamas may hold the key to solving one of medicine's most vexing problems—how to cure the flu.

This story originally appeared in The Lowdown, ABP’s weekly roundup of news, culture, holy-shit awesomeness, event updates & exclusive offers delivered straight to your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

◊◊◊

The Lowdown got its flu shot, did you?

The season of snot-filled tissues is upon us, and scientists think they have a new weapon against influenza, which killed an estimated 80,000 Americans last year.

Good for more than sweaters: Scientists have developed a new treatment against all types of flu, including new pandemics, using antibodies from llamas.

Ever notice how you need a new flu vaccine each year, but other plagues require only one prick? The flu has always been a tough medical nut to crack because the virus is a master of disguise, mutating its appearance to dodge your immune system. Those mutations are focused at the virus’ surface.

Compared to humans, llamas have minuscule antibodies, the weapons our immune system deploys to combat invaders. They bind to proteins on the surface of a virus and attack. Llama antibodies, thanks to their wee size, can embed themselves deeper in the virus, where mutations do not occur as readily.

The ‘Holy Grail of Influenza’: A team at Scripps Institute in California infected llamas with multiple types of flu, then studied their immune response and picked out the antibodies that proved most effective. They then built a synthetic super antibody combining those elements and tested it on mice.

“It’s very effective, there were 60 different viruses that were used in the challenge and only one wasn’t neutralized and that’s a virus that doesn’t infect humans,” Professor Ian Wilson, one of the researchers, told the BBC. “The goal here is to provide something that would work from season to season, and also protect you from possible pandemics should they emerge.”

Don’t go skipping your flu shot just yet. The work was published in the journal Science in November, and the team behind it says they are developing the technique further and conducting more experiments before embarking on human trials

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