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Health Highlights: May 24, 2013

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

'Nanoparticle' Flu Vaccine Could Be an Advance

Scientists have used nanotechnology to create a flu vaccine that may be quicker to develop and more adaptable to changing flu seasons.

"This is, I believe, an important advance," Dr. Tony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News.

Researchers at the institute developed the new vaccine, which is made of nanoparticles that self- assemble under laboratory conditions into an "impostor" of the flu virus. This method gets around the traditional method of using a weakened form of live virus that's then grown laboriously over a period of months in chicken eggs, the researchers said.

Use of live virus makes the flu shot's effectiveness less predictable, since the pathogen mutates constantly.

The new technology uses a piece of the flu virus called hemagglutinin, which is then fused with a piece of a compound called ferritin that naturally forms nanoparticles. These nanoparticles end up resembling the hemagluttinin found on the influenza virus.

"They look like flu. They react with [immune system] antibodies like flu," researcher Dr. Gary Nabel told NBC. Nabel, who now works for vaccine maker Sanofi, worked at NIAID previously and helped develop the new vaccine. His team reported their findings in the journal Nature.

According to Nabel, without the need to grow virus in chicken eggs, the speed at which seasonal vaccines could be created would be drastically reduced -- perhaps to just a week or two.

And Fauci said such vaccines might protect against a wide variety of flu strains.

"To me, this is an important step toward the development of a universal flu vaccine," he told NBC. "The definition of a universal flu vaccine is it covers wide range [of virus strains] and you wouldn't necessarily need to get a new one each year."

So far, the new shot has worked in ferrets, which are considered close models to humans in terms of their reactions to flu. Researchers are working on a version that could work in people.


Mystery Illness Kills 2 in Alabama

A respiratory illness of unknown origin has hospitalized five people and killed two others in southeast Alabama, state health officials announced Tuesday.

Over the past few weeks, the patients were admitted to hospitals with cough, fever and shortness of breath, Alabama Department of Health spokeswoman Mary McIntyre said in a statement, the Associated Press reported.

Lab tests are currently underway to try and identify the nature of the illnesses and McIntyre said preliminary results are expected by Wednesday or Thursday.

So far, "we're only aware of [cases in] the Southeast, but we don't know, we haven't received reports from anywhere else," McIntyre told the AP. "That's why we're trying to get the information out."

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