Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago and fellow vaccine expert Rafi Ahmed of Emory University in Atlanta, hope to develop a method to quickly make infection-fighting proteins called monoclonal antibodies. The specially engineered antibodies are immune system proteins that attach to invaders such as viruses and in effect able to neutralize the particular strain of influenza.
The hope is that these antibodies would be useful in protecting frontline workers and other high-risk persons to ward off the flu until a vaccine could be made should a pandemic arise.
Last Sunday, researchers at CDC asked the researchers to put this new technology to the test in the face of the outbreak of the strange new strain of the H1N1 flu virus (swine flu).
When they receive the blood samples, the teams will isolate a type of immune system cell known as antibody-secreting plasma cells, which produce a deluge of antibodies as part of an initial response to infection.
These cells will allow the researchers to begin making highly targeted antibodies against the new flu strain.
"Within a few weeks from the time we get the blood, we're likely to have something of value," said Wilson optimistically, adding that the antibodies would then be sent to the CDC for further testing to make sure they are able to block the virus from infecting cells grown in the lab.
Wilson said the CDC first plans to utilize the antibodies for making rapid diagnostic test kits that are able to quickly identify the new virus without sophisticated lab equipment to match its genetic sequence.
They hope to eventually make antibodies that can be injected into those who have been exposed to the virus.
"If they find some of these antibodies that are really good at neutralizing this flu, the potential is there to use it as a therapy," Wilson said.
According to Wilson, the antibody therapy is intended to provide only temporary immunity, but it can be made available much faster than a vaccine, which can take four to six months.
Officials are reporting that although almost all cases in other countries have been mild, the virus has killed up to 101 people in Mexico so far.