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Identifying weaknesses in the immune system by tracking flu infections in the body

While signs and symptoms of the influenza virus are simple enough for most patients to spot, the process of what happens at the molecular level in cells of the immune system between initial infection and full recovery is not so straightforward. Research efforts to better understand human immune dynamics could improve future vaccine treatments and boost scientists' understanding of the body's defense system.

Scientific American's Observations blog reports:

Advances in genomics and epigenetics lately have helped research teams follow individual immune cells, allowing a new view of how the cell populations maintain their diversity over time, and adding clues to how the immune system as a whole changes during and after an infection.

As for the flu, good old-fashioned mouse research (in which researchers "prime" mice with small doses of a strain or two of the flu then later give them a different strain to see how their immune cells ramp up over the course of the infection) has supported much of what researchers now understand about how the body recognizes different strains. Unlike mice who had never been exposed to the flu, mice that first got small amounts of H1N1 survived an infection of the much more virulent H7N7 strain, suggesting that their immune systems were ready to attack even a different form of the virus. But those mice that had gotten both H1N1 and an H3N2 primer were much more effective in beating back the infection quickly.

That said, [Peter Doherty, of the University of Melbourne's Department of Microbiology and Immunology] pointed out, "we're not nice clean organisms like a lab mouse." As humans age, he noted, our immune systems are exposed to all sorts of infections to which our bodies develop specific antigens. And that makes studying immune responses in humans more complicated.

The full entry is worth taking a moment to read and further describes researchers' struggles to improve vaccines for the common flu strains as well as develop a potent prevention treatment for the more dangerous H5N5.

Photo by Wellcome Images

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