Discovery shows influenza virus targets bodily cells most likely to kill it

Whitehead Institute scientists announced on Sunday a new discovery regarding how the influenza virus attacks the immune system and a technique that may help overcome the influenza epidemic.

Whitehead researchers discovered that the influenza virus attacks the cells most equipped to kill the virus. Memory B cells, or virus-specific B cells, produce and secrete antibodies specially designed to kill off a virus that has invaded a person's body.

These cells "remember" an infection from the first instance of exposure and recall how the infection was overcome. When the influenza virus attacks these cells, the body does not readily remember how it overcame a previous fight with influenza, increasing the disease's chances of survival in the body.

"This is how the virus gains a foothold," Stephanie Dougan, a co-author of the study and scientist at Whitehead Member Hidde Ploegh lab. "The virus targets memory cells in the lung, which allows infection to be established -- even if the immune system has seen this flu before."

Dougan and her team of researchers, including Joseph Ashour of Ploegh, worked together to overcome the newly-discovered tactic expressed by the influenza virus. The team added a fluorescent label to the influenza virus, identified flu-specific B cells then cloned nuclei from B cells using enucleated mouse egg cells via the somatic cell nuclear transfer.

This process created a mouse population with influenza virus-specific B cells and cell receptors. Dougan's team will go on to study how these mice respond to an influenza viral infection to see if their method can be used to overcome an influenza infection. The research team hopes to expand this method to determine its efficacy against a range of different diseases.

"This is research that could help with rational vaccine design, leading to more effective vaccines for seasonal flu," Ashour said. "It might even suggest novel strategies for conferring immunity."