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Science Bulletins: Survivors of 1918 Flu Still Thwart Virus

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the deadliest ever recorded. At least 50 million people died before the strain mutated and vanished in 1919. Some of the youngest survivors, however, are still alive. A new study of 32 people who lived through the pandemic as children has found that their white blood cells mounted a powerful antibody response to the virus. Moreover, their immune systems can still fight back against this microscopic killer—even nine decades later.The work, which was led by pediatrics researcher James Crowe at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, was possible only because the 1918 influenza virus was "resurrected" in 2005. That year, U.S. researchers sequenced the virus's genome using lung tissue of a victim whose body was preserved in Alaskan permafrost. The strain, which is a subtype of a group of influenza viruses called H1N1, was then reconstructed from the genome in a high-security laboratory. In this study, Crowe's team reacted the 1918 virus with blood samples from the survivors and identified the antibody response.Now Crowe and his collaborators are testing whether antibodies for one virus can target and neutralize another. "If we understand the physical basis," he says, "then maybe we could rationally design antibodies that might cross-react with all past and possibly future H1 viruses."
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