The flu season is upon us, with the usual reminders to get your shot and the usual caveat that the vaccine is just a best guess—scientists' hope that it will match up well against the strains that actually surface. Now, however, a new study suggests that the guessing game could someday end, and it's all thanks to llamas, reports Science. Researchers say their work is a genuine step toward the creation of a universal vaccine, one that would be delivered through a nasal spray and prove far more effective in protecting humans from the ever-changing virus—and potentially from a pandemic, reports the Los Angeles Times. The technique, which the New York Times calls "a sophisticated combination of immunotherapy and gene therapy," worked extremely well in mice. The next step is to move on to other animals and ultimately to clinical trials for humans.
So why llamas? They have unusually small antibodies that can nimbly fight invading viruses. The researchers vaccinated the llamas against several flu strains, causing their immune systems to produce antibodies that were then harvested. As the LAT explains, four of those antibodies were "uniquely" tiny and seemed potent against a variety of flu strains. Those four were used to create what the NYT calls a single "mega-antibody." Another novel step followed: They injected into it the mice via a harmless virus used in gene therapy, a way of side-stepping the immune system, which the NYT reports would be unable to produce "this artificial creation." When sprayed into the noses of mice, the new defense worked—the virus penetrated cells in the nasal cavity, and they started to pump out the mega-antibody. (One stat may help explain last year's brutal flu season.)