Scientists watch an immune system fight the flu in real time

It could lead to better treatments for many stubborn viruses.

Emo, Young-min et. al.

To date, biologists have typically had to study the progress of a virus through indirect means, such as studying the antibodies -- actually tracking the viruses themselves has been difficult. However, researchers say they've found a way to follow the progress of a virus in real time. By using multiphoton microscopy in tandem with a laser and fluorescence, the team monitored influenza virus in a mouse's trachea (where the transluency made imaging possible) through the infection and immune system response.

As you might guess, the infection played out like a short war. The immune system's T-cells took a while to respond (about 5 days after initial infection), but they were merciless when they arrived, slowing down by the 7th day and methodically killing off infected cells. They even stayed around for a few days in a heightened state to keep watch for any new threats. This was all expected, but rare to see in action.

The live study has already taught scientists some lessons. A lower virus dose doesn't automatically lead to fewer T-cells fighting back, for one thing -- viruses may affect an immune system's response, but they don't define it. You may see far larger results in the future, though. Real-time data could lead to more effective treatments for viruses, triggering swifter, stronger immune responses. You might not have to spend ages grappling with that flu or cough.