Scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland have discovered a new protein – PB1-F2 – in the influenza virus whose function appears to be destroying immune cells.

The protein was discovered in the influenza A virus – the strain that has caused three major flu pandemics in the 20th century – and may shed some light on the virulence of various strains of the virus, and play an important role in governing why some flu strains kill lots of people and others don’t.

PB1-F2 has unusual features that distinguish it from other flu proteins. In laboratory experiments with human immune system cells – called monocytes – they found that the protein caused cells to die more quickly, and upon mutation of the protein, became less effective.

While the flu virus works by attacking our bodies in a number of complicated ways, this new information may open up an area of exploration towards a potential flu treatment. Several drugs are available that fight the flu, and vaccines are continually being developed to ward off certain strains.

Twenty percent of Americans get the flu annually and while in most people it is not much more than a nuisance, flu complications kill more than 20,000 North Americans annually, with the elderly and people with chronic diseases being at greatest risk.

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 130 – March/April 2002
W Chen, P A Calvo, D Malide, et al. A novel influenza A virus mitochondrial protein that induces cell death. Nature Medicine 2001;7:1306-1312.