A breakthrough in research into the influenza virus could lead to better vaccines against the illness and improved treatments for those who already have it, scientists believe.
A team at the Scripps Research Institute looked in detail at how flu interacts with antibodies in the lungs and how they react to current vaccines.
Vaccines work by presenting antigens to the immune system so that antibodies are produced to fight against them should the same virus reappear, but there have been many cases in recent years where immunisation has proved less effective than healthcare officials hoped.
The researchers examined different kinds of antibodies to see if some were more effective than others against the flu virus. It was found that one subtype called IgA1 was particularly powerful.
When the team looked in further detail as to why this was, they discovered that a tail on the end of the molecule was directly inhibiting flu as well as other viruses by stopping them from attaching to the cells they would otherwise have infected.
Furthermore, the IgA1 antibodies were particularly potent, meaning that fewer were needed to provide protection. This could be particularly important in healthcare, as future treatments incorporating it could be offered to more people at lower cost.
Writing in the journal Cell Reports, lead study author Lars Hangartner said the discovery was "completely unexpected and unforeseen".
He added that because IgAs can be difficult to work with, further research will now take place into developing antibodies that are less arduous to produce.
"We think if we could graft this tail onto a more manageable antibody molecule, it would be much easier to handle. It would combine the best of both worlds and give us a molecule that's more effective and hardy, and that ultimately may be useful in the clinic," the expert commented.
This winter's flu season in Britain has been particularly bad, with seasonal flu levels having remained elevated throughout the colder months. Indeed, the last time there was more flu circulating than this was in 2010-11.
However, the latest report from Public Health England suggests activity has now peaked and rates are declining, with a 38 per cent decrease in GP consultations and an 18 per cent decline in flu hospitalisations in the week ending March 29th.
Any developments and improvements in vaccinations would surely be widely welcomed by those in the pharmaceutical industry.