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New Protein May Protect Against Flu, SDSU Professor Finds

A professor at San Diego State has made a discovery that could lead to better and faster treatment for the flu.

Aired 7/12/12 on KPBS News.

A professor at San Diego State has made an exciting discovery. She’s found a human-made protein is able to block the flu virus in mice.

Joy Phillips, an associate professor at SDSU's Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center.

Above: Joy Phillips, an associate professor at SDSU's Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center.

Joy Phillips, an assistant professor at SDSU’s Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center, took a human-made protein that previously had been used in studies to make vaccines stronger and decided to test it by itself to see what it would do.

She took mice who had the flu and injected them with the protein, EP67. She found surprising results.

“When you treated mice with EP67, within a 24 hour window of when they got the flu, they didn’t get sick,” she said. “They still had been infected with the virus, so they would be protected from a later infection, but they did not show the normal signs of illness.”

Her team then took it a step further, giving the mice a deadly dose of flu and waiting a full day before treating them.

“Mice that were treated a full day after being infected with a lethal dose of flu were 100 percent protected from death, none of those mice died,” Phillips said. “And they didn’t even look particularly sick.”

They also injected mice with a lethal dose of flu and did not treat them with EP67. When the control mice were dying, Phillips said the EP67 mice “looked great.”

These results suggest an EP67 injection—administered after exposure to the flu—could keep you from getting sick. But, as Phillips is quick to point out, so far her results are only from studies with mice, and there’s a long way to go until EP67 can be tested on humans.

Still, she said, there are several things about her findings that are reasons for excitement.

Colorized influenza A virus.
Enlarge this image

Above: Colorized influenza A virus.

For one, EP67 is not actually fighting the flu, but instead wakes up the immune system and alerts it to the flu’s presence. Usually when you have the flu, you carry the virus around for a few days before you show any symptoms. During that time, the virus can spread and your immune system hasn’t started working to fight the virus yet.

If EP67 spurs your immune system to action, it could stop you from spreading the virus in those first few days.

Phillips also said the fact that the protein does not directly fight the flu is good news, because it doesn’t give the flu virus a chance to adapt.

“Therapeutics that directly target an organism, those organisms then evolve resistance,” she said. “So if we have something that doesn’t touch the virus at all, there’s no expectation that the virus is going to evolve ways around this.”

Another reason for excitement: the immune system responds in basically the same way, no matter what infection you have. This means EP67 could work not just against the flu, but on a wide variety of viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Phillips said her team already has data showing the protein is protective against bacterial and fungal infections. She said it could even work when the infecting agent isn’t known, like the SARS virus.

But there are many questions that need to be resolved. Phillips said she must confirm that EP67 will work against other strains of flu.

“There’s no reason to expect it won’t, but it still absolutely has to be tested,” she said.

Beyond that, she would like to work with other scientists who study other diseases to see how far EP67’s protective properties spread. And before EP67 can be tested on humans, there is a lot of safety testing that needs to be done.

Because the protein seems to alert the immune system to the flu virus more quickly, another key question is whether an EP67 injection would make you feel sicker faster. But Phillips said that’s tricky to solve.

“That’s hard to answer because it’s mice, and they’re not really forthcoming with how they’re feeling,” she said.

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