ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Here's the scene. It's the middle of a world war, a mysterious illness, the three-day fever springs up on the American plains. A week later, it's in New York. Soldiers carry it to Europe. Then people start dying, hundreds, thousands then tens of thousands of people across the globe. This is not fiction. It's the 1918 flu, the deadliest outbreak of disease in modern history
Researchers have just discovered a relic of the 1918 flu, antibodies in some of the survivors who are still living 90 years later. Those antibodies are helping scientists understand what it might take to battle a modern flu pandemic. And the discovery of them owes something to a TV show, a doctor whose specialty has nothing to do with viruses, and some remarkable research techniques. NPR's Joanne Silberner has more.
JOANNE SILBERNER: Let's start with a TV show. One night four years ago things were a little slow for Dr. Eric Altschuler, so he turned on the TV. Altschuler's now with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. That night four years ago, he was doing an overnight rotation in the hospital. He tuned into a show called "Medical Investigation." It featured epidemiologists who study disease patterns. Several people in a Virginia town came down with a particularly lethal form of the flu.
Doctor ERIC ALTSCHULER (University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey): One of the curiosities on the show was that the oldest person in the town, who was the chauffeur for the first person who got the disease — he didn't get sick, which is unusual, because usually if you're that old — he was, I think, close to 90 — you get sick.
SILBERNER: The TV doctors figured it out: The new flu was a variant of the 1918 flu. The old chauffeur still had antibodies.
Dr. ALTSCHULER: And then, as other people started getting sick, they asked if he could donate some of his blood and they could recover antibodies that might help his wife and other people from the town who had gotten sick.
SILBERNER: Altschuler figured maybe the TV show was onto something.
Dr. ALTSCHULER: Now, since I saw the show, I thought this is such a great idea, why don't we just do it in real life?
SILBERNER: He specializes in rehabilitation medicine, not the flu. So, I called up the National Institutes of Health to see if anyone was interested. Someone there put him in touch with some top virologists and immunologists, including James Crowe of Vanderbilt University.
Doctor JAMES CROWE (Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Vanderbilt University): We had thought about this before, we considered it impossible.
SILBERNER: Impossible because the cells that make antibodies weren't thought to circulate in the blood for 90 years, at least not at a high enough concentration to be found. But Altschuler was persistent. He found 32 people who had been 3, 4 or 5 years old in 1918. He sent their blood samples to James Crowe and the other immunologists and virologists.
Dr. CROWE: We actually had to find the cells floating around in the blood as if they were sentinels looking for a new infection.
SILBERNER: And using some sophisticated new techniques, they found antibodies to the 1918 flu in every one of the 32 people they tested who was alive in 1918, and little if any antibody in people born after 1925. Finding the antibodies was good news, says Crowe.
Dr. CROWE: It suggests that it's possible to make a strong immune response in humans to these types of bird flu viruses.
SILBERNER: Other types of bird flu virus include the one now circulating in Asia that has sickened or killed hundreds of people. Researchers worry that that virus, with a few more mutations, could become highly infectious like the 1918 virus. Next, the researchers wanted to make more antibodies to see if they could still keep someone from getting sick. Jeffrey Taubenberger is a 1918 flu virus expert with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He explains why that could be important.
Doctor JEFFREY TAUBENBERGER (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases): If you take the cells that make these antibodies and you can treat them in a way to allow them to grow in culture dishes for a long period of time, you can then isolate those antibodies and then use those antibodies to treat somebody with a severe infection.
SILBERNER: Once the researchers engineered the 1918 human cells to manufacture antibodies, they gave them to mice infected with a modern version of the 1918 virus. And the mice who got the antibodies didn't get sick. They report in the journal "Nature" today. But mice aren't people, and the 1918 virus isn't likely to be the next flu pandemic. And making these antibodies is really difficult and slow; vaccines are somewhat faster and easier.
So what good is all this? Jeffrey Taubenberger says it's nice to have an alternative when you're looking at something that's potentially deadly as a flu pandemic.
Joanne Silberner, NPR News.
SEABROOK: There's more about the hunt for life-saving lessons from the 1918 flu at NPR.org.