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Old Virus as Friend and Helper
The virus of the Spanish flu was
an influenza A virus of the subtype
H1N1; © PHIL
Many people think that flu cannot kill young people with a strong immune system. But in times of the Spanish flu this became reality. Today, 90 years later, researchers try to find the reason for that. According to Stephan Ludwig, the work with the old virus is a gold mine. “From the scientific point of view”, stresses the virologist and influenza researcher at the University of Münster, Germany. And this could be medically sensible because the virus from 1918 is similar to the virus of the avian flu which killed humans four years ago.
„Perhaps we would understand the virus of the avian flu better if we knew the virus from 1918”, says Ludwig. Jeffery Taubenberger, Head of the Institute for pathology of the US Army, did a big step forward in this case. In 2005, he was able to reconstruct the virus with tiny RNA fragments which he found in tissue samples from victims of the Spanish flu. He realised that exactly eight genes killed so many people.
Genome decoded – aggressiveness unexplained
Now researchers know the genome but they could not decode which properties made the virus so aggressive. They still do not know why especially young people with a strong immune system were killed. In experiments the researchers aimed to find an answer to this question. They mixed genes from the virus of 1918 with genes of a more harmless virus and tested the effect on animals.
„The result was surprising“, says Ludwig. The researchers found that the virus was no more aggressive with additional genes of the virus of the Spanish flu. It seems that the virus of 1918 only develops its deadly force if all eight genes are combined.
An assumption why the virus paralysed the immune system of so many young people is that the defence mechanisms against the virus were so heavily activated that they not only destroyed the virus but also the whole organism. “We also observe an overreaction of the immune system regarding the avian flu”, explains Ludwig. This similarity between the diseases makes the research with the old virus so interesting for the present.
Focus on the research in the USA
“In Germany we would be happy if we could contribute success to the research, but our possibilities are limited”, says Ludwig. Researchers from Europe only can order several genes of the virus from the USA. That is one reason why researchers in Germany hardly get support money from the government if they want to research with the virus of the Spanish flu. In the USA this is different because only there it is possible to work with the complete virus. Researchers in a round dozen of laboratories are involved in the research which is financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“Perhaps it is the fear of bioterrorism“, says Ludwig to the fact that the USA do not agree to worldwide research with the complete virus. According to him, deficient safety conditions cannot be the reason for this. Ludwig argues that Germany also has high safety laboratories where it is possible to work with the complete virus. “Nevertheless, the research with the virus is important because a pandemic is long overdue”, he adds. Although dangerous diseases are better controlled today than in the past, the risk of a pandemic is not averted.
If it comes true what Ludwig assumes and if the virus is decoded by then the scientific success may also develop to a financial success for the USA. Vaccines and drugs could be developed first there. “I think that the USA would not refuse this monopoly.”