07/08/2012 01:13 am ET

EP67 Protein May Prevent Flu By Boosting Immune System, Mouse Study Suggests

Scientists may have pinpointed a potential way to prevent the flu by identifying a protein that amps up the immune system, according to a new animal study.

The synthetic protein, called EP67, is able to trigger an immune response to the "threat" of the flu virus within a couple of hours in mice, University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers said.

Right now, defenses against the flu include getting a flu shot, which protects you from the certain strains of the flu virus that are expected to be prevalent during any given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This technique allows antibodies to develop against those particular flu strains.

But with this protein, instead of guarding against particular strains, the entire immune system is bolstered, researchers explained in the PLoS ONE study.

"When you find out you've been exposed to the flu, the only treatments available now target the virus directly but they are not reliable and often the virus develops a resistance against them," study researcher Joy Phillips, Ph.D., said in a statement. "EP67 could potentially be a therapeutic that someone would take when they know they've been exposed that would help the body fight off the virus before you get sick."

The researchers conducted the study in mice, which were all infected with the flu. In mice, being infected with flu translates to weight loss -- when a mouse has the flu, it will lose as much as a fifth of its weight.

Some of the mice were given the protein, while others were not. The researchers found that if mice were given the protein in the first 24 hours of being infected with the flu, they either didn't experience any weight loss or just a little weight loss (6 percent, on average) compared with the mice not given the protein.

Right now, everyone ages 6 months and older is recommended to be vaccinated against the flu by the CDC, particularly people at high risk for flu complications (like women who are pregnant, the elderly and people who have other health conditions). However, there are certain people who should ask a doctor before getting a flu shot; the CDC explains who they are on its fact sheet here.