Centenarian Immune Systems Remember How to Fight the 1918 Flu

By Eliza Strickland | August 18, 2008 8:42 am

1918 Spanish flu hospitalPeople who lived through the 1918 flu pandemic still have antibodies in their immune systems that can recognize and fight that flu virus, although the haven’t been exposed to it for 90 years. Such long-lived immunity was thought to be impossible without periodic exposure to the microbe that stimulated the immune system in the first place [Science News]. Researchers say these antibodies could be helpful in developing treatments for viruses similar to the deadly one that swept around the world in 1918, killing an estimated 50 million people.

For the study, which will be published in this week’s issue of Nature [subscription required], lead researcher James Crowe’s team studied antibodies in the blood of 32 people in their 90s and 100s, born during or before 1915. They found that all 32 people had antibodies to the 1918 strain of flu virus [HealthDay News]. In lab tests, the antibodies mounted a powerfully effective attack against a modern version of the virus. “This is entirely counter to everyone’s intuition — that elderly people would have such potent antibodies,” Crowe says. Aging typically reduces a person’s ability to build antibodies and develop immunity to diseases [Science News].

The 1918 flu was an H1N1 strain that apparently came straight from birds [Reuters]. Researchers are particularly interested in studying it because a newer strain of bird flu, H5N1, is currently circulating among bird populations in Asia, Africa, and Europe, and has crossed over to infect 385 people since 2003, killing 243. Experts fear that, like the H1N1 virus did in 1918, H5N1 will mutate into a form that passes easily among people and spark another pandemic [Reuters].

Researchers say the antibodies harvested from the centenarians’ immune systems are still potent and useful. “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 use those antibodies to treat somebody with a severe infection,” said Jeffrey Taubenberger, a 1918 flu virus expert [NPR]. Sure enough, when researchers treated lab mice with the antibodies and then infected them with a modern version of the 1918 flu virus, the mice didn’t get sick.

Image: National Musuem of Health and Medicine

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • http://SakalGlobalMinistries.org Shirley Hill

    People who are in this age group have something that other generations do not have, that is a sound nutritional foundation. There were no McDonalds etc. on every corner when they were children. They sat down to home cooked meals, which helped to establish a healthy immune system that would protect them through a lifetime. I am almost 60 and I know that today?s seniors 60-70 as a whole live on canned, frozen and microwaved foods. Despite reports to the contrary these foods do not give the body what it needs to defend itself against such an enemy as the bird flu. Our western diet is why we have an obesity epidemic, and why there is a new medication on TV promising to do something that our bodies should do normally.

    Shirley Hill,NFH
    Wellness Administrator
    Sakal the Center for Success
    and Kingdom Advancement Living
    mophethns@yahoo.com
    SakalGlobalMinistries.org

  • Kendra Park

    It is absolutely fascinating that the immunity of the survivors of the epidemic is still active. My grandmother is 94 and lived through the 1918 flu epidemic. While her neighbors became ill, and some died, no one in her immediate family became ill, though they cared for their sick neighbors. I wonder if she has antibodies for the H1N1 flu, since she was never sick with it. These people were farmers. While they did not have a fast-food diet, it was often very high in fat and cholesterol, with the consumption of lots of eggs and pork. Not only did they not get the flu, but, almost without exception, they lived into their 90s and 100s. What else is at work here?

  • Shirley Smith

    I think another large factor to consider is how stress plays a factor in the lifestyle of turn of the centry farmers and people living in today’s world. The stressors of life are very different between the two. It’s been proven that large amounts of constant stress weakens the immune system and promotes illness. I think that farmers at the turn of the century also had different and much less stress then the constant stressors our modern civilization goes through.

  • Kendra Park

    I almost said that people 100 years ago did not have the stress that we do today, but then I stopped myself. My agrarian ancestors had life-and-death stress every day with planting crops, true concern and worry about weather, harvesting crops, illness without medicine and antibiotics, high-mortality rate among women giving birth and of infants, etc. But they also did hard, physical labor. They worked hard, ate well, and slept well. I think this lifestyle contributed to their strong bodies and peace of mind. And in those days, it was truly survival of the fittest. If you were strong, you lived; if you were weak, you died. But nowadays, modern medicine has enabled even the weak to survive, and that, in turn, has weakened the human race as a whole. Medicine is truly a double-edged sword.

  • B

    Woah, Kendra, those are some great genes you probably have hah. Perhaps your grandmother had a natural genetic immune system resistance to the drug already if the whole family avoided sickness.

    But I would agree that it’s not simply that they did not have stress, but had strong ways of dealing with it. Hard physical labour is one. But one thing they did not have is as much sensory stress. Unconscious effect of T.V, advertisements, lights, motion, noise. I would say, its our fault for some of these you can probably minimize it to the more natural levels (because agrarian life of course had its own sensory stimulation).

  • http://www.valeria-blue-rain.com valeria

    I believe your mind controls all of one’s illness now and in the 20th century. And modern medicine is only a means to make money from ordinary people.

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