April 11, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

virusApril is not really the correct time of year for the sun to have his hat on with such conviction. Regardless of the month, when the sun does come out to play London seems to transform. People make eye contact with you, smile, laugh openly in the streets, hug strangers and take everything at a much more leisurely place. You can’t help but follow suit –  the feeling is infectious.

Now I hate to burst the early summer induced bubble, but we all know it will be over before long. The ‘real’ summer will pass by in a flash of downpours and seemingly unnecessary hose pipe bans. When the cold weather returns we’ll be back to stony faced commuters, umbrellas turning inside out and the daily struggle to decide how many layers are optimum to avoid frostbite on the streets and heat stroke on the tubes. The wintry feeling of despair will spread quickly and, unfortunately, will definitely be coupled with the annual spread of the flu. Now available in many different varieties, the influenza virus infects 3 to 5 million people worldwide and claims the lives of 250-500,000 every year (WHO).

Despite the availability of vaccinations against strains of the influenza virus, genetic mutations reduce the effectiveness of the vaccination and so it is not a fail-safe way to avoid contracting the flu. Patients who have been vaccinated are still at risk of developing potentially fatal complications after contracting a mutated strain of the influenza virus. The vaccine may also prove ineffective if a patient contracts flu shortly after receiving the vaccine or has had their immune system compromised, meaning the vaccine would be unable to induce the necessary immune response to beat the virus. Enter Dr Homayoun Shams.

Dr Shams is the principle investigator of a study to be published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine which suggests a new method of defeating the flu virus may one day be much more successful than current vaccines. Dr Shams seems passionate about the intentions of the study and highlights the importance of research into new ways to tackle the flu virus:

“Improved methods to protect against influenza are sorely needed, particularly in the face of an impending pandemic…Despite the widespread use of vaccines, influenza causes significant morbidity and mortality throughout the world, and those with poor immune systems are particularly more susceptible – such as the very young, elderly or immunocompromised individuals.”

The study has shown that pulmonary administration of granulocyte macrophage-colony stimulating factor (GM-SCF) has significantly reduced flu symptoms and has been effective in preventing death after a lethal dose of the influenza virus. As usual, the patients of the study were mice. All the mice treated with GM-SCF survived the ordeal and all the untreated mice died from the same level of infection. The way GM-SCF works is that it increases the speed and effectiveness of the immune response, allowing it to be immediately effective against the virus. So far, the treatment has proven to be just as effective regardless of the particular strain of influenza.

Working in a very different way to a vaccine, GM-SCF treatment enhances the alveolar macrophages (AM) which are known to be an integral part of an animal’s immune response to infection with the flu. Though use of GM-SCF for treatment of influenza in humans is a long way off, GM-SCF is already used to treat human neutropenia (a deficiency of neutrophils, the most important type of white blood cell). Dr Shams is confident that if the results of their studies continue in this way then delivering GM-SCF to the lungs of human patients could well be the future of influenza intervention in humans.

Surprisingly, nowhere in the study was there any mention of man-flu, although the fact that the treatment appears not to be strain dependent does make me hopeful that this most serious type of flu will be treatable, one day!

Image from 3dscience.com