29 May 2013

Gene therapy is ‘new weapon’ in fight against flu

A new gene therapy technique could prove to be a powerful weapon in the war against influenza, according to a new study.

Researchers in the US used a gene therapy technique which worked well against the H5N1 and H1N1 flu virus.

Gene therapy is a new technique which uses genes to treat or prevent disease.

The idea behind it is that doctors can tackle a disorder by inserting a gene into a patient’s cells instead of using drugs or surgery.

Investigators at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, used a liquid to place a gene replicating an antibody known to be effective against flu into the noses of mice and ferrets, and found it gave them protection against lethal strains of the virus.

The strains were isolated from samples associated with an infamous flu pandemic in 1918 and another in 2009.

‘Proof of effectiveness’

One of the scientists, James Wilson, said: “The experiments described in our paper provide critical proof-of-concept in animals about a technology platform that can be deployed in the setting of virtually any pandemic or biological attack for which a neutralising antibody exists or can be easily isolated.

“Further development of this approach for pandemic flu has taken on more urgency in light of the spreading infection in China of the lethal bird strain of H7N9 virus in humans.”

The technique establishes broad-based efficacy against a wide range of flu strains.

The treatment was tested in mice that were exposed to lethal quantities of three strains of H5N1 and two strains of H1N1, all of which have been associated with historic human pandemics (including the infamous H1N1 1918).

The flu virus rapidly replicated in untreated animals all of which needed to be put down.

However, pre-treatment with the liquid containing the gene virtually shut down virus replication and provided complete protection against all strains of flu in the treated animals.

One of the scientists, Maria Limberis, said: “The novelty of this approach is that we’re … delivering the prophylactic vaccine to the nose in a non-invasive manner, not a shot like conventional vaccines that passively transfer antibodies to the general circulation.”

The study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.