Science News

Flu attacks immune memory cells

Sun, 20th Oct 2013

Kat Arney

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Scientists at the Whitehead Institute in the US have made a step forward in understanding why the flu virus is so deadly. And they've done it in a very Influenzaclever way.

When we're infected by the influenza virus, our immune system generates cells, known as B cells, that produce antibodies special proteins that recognise the virus and neutralise it. A subset of these cells take up residence in the lungs, to help fight off the chances of reinfection by the virus through inhaling it.

These cells, known as memory B cells, are particularly good at recognising the virus, so they can spring into action and make more antibodies at the first sign of infection. But the scientists discovered that the flu virus infects and kills these cells in the lungs, making it harder to fight off the infection.

Unfortunately, it's very difficult to purify flu-infected B cells, so they had to take a more roundabout approach, using cloning techniques. They took the DNA the nucleus from a mouse B cell that could specifically recognise the flu virus, and put it into a mouse egg cell that had had its own DNA removed. This then created a mouse in which all the B cells can only recognise flu, so they could easily study the infection.

They discovered that the virus infected the flu-specific memory B cells in the lungs and killed them, while flu-specific B cells in another part of the body the lymph nodes weren't destroyed. So it looks like the flu virus specifically targets and kills the memory cells that are aiming to protect the body against reinfection from inhaled viruses, giving it another chance to gain a foothold before the rest of the immune system kicks in to tackle it.

The new results, published in Nature, help to explain why flu is so infectious, and could help with the design of vaccines, both for the annual flu shot or entirely new types of preventive approaches. And the techniques the lab have developed could be applied to studying how other viruses interact with cells in the immune system, which could bring health benefits in other diseases.


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Is this as much "reinfecting", as targeting the same immune system cells that play a major roll in fighting the infection.

In computer terms, many computer viruses are designed specifically to target and disable the antivirus programs on the computer.

Disease Amnesia would be interesting to research.
For example, in mice,
Expose a group of mice to Virus A.
After they recover, expose half to Virus B, and half to no virus.
Once again, after they recover, expose all mice to Virus A again. 
The question would be whether the exposure to Virus B caused an amnesia effect for Virus A (by killing B cells targeted to virus A).

Your article suggested that there were many B cells not associated with the lungs.  There was also a question recently whether vaccines should target the expected mode of entry.  Perhaps there would be benefits of developing B cells both at the site of entry, as well as away from the expected site of entry. 

Perhaps better understanding the interaction between viruses and the immune system will also help give better insight to HIV/AIDS. CliffordK, Sun, 20th Oct 2013

Could you post the citation so the paper can be found more easily? Robert LaMothe, Tue, 11th Mar 2014

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