Dancing with the Flu
Innovation at Genentech often starts with a “What if?” Gerry Nakamura and Lee Swem* talk about what would happen if we could neutralize all known strains of the flu.
*While Lee was an employee at the time this article was published, he has since left Genentech.
“Bundle up, rest, and drink plenty of fluids.” If you’ve ever had the flu, you’ve been given that age-old advice. After a few days of feeling awful and a whole lot of daytime television, most people are back on their feet. But what about the people who develop severe, life-threatening influenza? This was the question that led Genentech’s infectious disease team to start their search for more comprehensive flu care.
“Anytime we make a neutralizing antibody, the flu changes and evolves in order to evade our immune system,” says Lee Swem, Infectious Disease Scientist. So how do you isolate a biological master of disguise? Lee and the rest of the team began devising methods to fight the flu no matter how it tried to hide.
Previous research had shown that a part of a crucial protein in the flu virus — Hemagglutinin — remained the same throughout the virus’ evolution. The team decided to find an antibody that could bind to this conserved epitope from among human blood samples. Cloning that antibody could hypothetically allow them to neutralize the flu virus in all its forms.
From there the hunt was on. According to Antibody Engineer Gerry Nakamura, “The cell that makes that particular antibody—which is called a ‘B cell’—should be circulating within all of us. The trick was finding it.” With the help of volunteers, some truly inspiring lab work, and an actual bucket brigade to help get the time-sensitive cells to the lab, their results so far look promising. What’s more, the application of this new methodology may help identify therapeutic antibodies in other disease fields as well.
For more on the team’s efforts, watch our “Dancing with the Flu” video.