Have Scientists Found The Cure For The Flu?

By Amir Khan on August 10, 2012 9:25 AM EDT

A scientist checks eggs for bird flu at the Zooprophylactic Institute near the northern Italian city of Padua December 12, 2005.
A scientist checks eggs for bird flu at the Zooprophylactic Institute near the northern Italian city of Padua December 12, 2005. (Photo: Reuters)

The flu shot may be a thing of the past, according to a new study, published in the journal Science. Researchers found a potentially powerful new treatment for the flu that could make the annual flu shot no longer necessary.

Currently, there is no treatment for the flu -- doctors recommend treating the symptoms. The new findings could change that and offer patients a legitimate treatment from the flu. In addition, the findings could also pave the way for a universal vaccine.

"To develop a truly universal flu vaccine or therapy, one needs to be able to provide protection against influenza A and influenza B viruses," Ian A. Wilson, study author and professor of structural biology at Scripps Research Institute, told ABC News "With this report, we now have broadly neutralizing antibodies against both.".

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Influenza A strains mutate quickly and are responsible for causing most flu outbreaks. Influenza A strains cause swine and bird flu, a strain blamed for the 1918 flu epidemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. Influenza B mutates more slowly than influenza A and often causes flu in children, according to the FDA. One strain of influenza C exists, but remains very rare.

Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, body aches and fatigue. 

Flu infection rates fluctuate annually, but between 3,000 and 49,000 people died annually from the flu between 1976 and 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. health authorities recommend getting the flu vaccine annually, and say it is the most important step in protecting against the virus.

"The Holy Grail of influenza research is to find a mechanism to protect people against essentially all the numerous different strains of influenza viruses," Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told ABC News. "This research is a heartening step forward."

Gregory A. Poland, a professor of medicine, infectious diseases, molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the Mayo Clinic, is cautiously optimistic about the findings.

"If this is true, it is big news in that it allows us to protect those too young or old to benefit from flu vaccines, and those immunocompromised from a large variety of illnesses that don't allow them to respond to vaccines," he told ABC News.

However, Schaffner also warned that any potential benefit is still a long ways away.

"Sometimes what seems to work in mice in the laboratory does not perform as well in humans who are out in the world," he said. "Nevertheless, the investigators have earned congratulations and this finding opens the door."

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