In DepthINFLUENZA

Narcolepsy link to pandemic flu vaccine becomes clearer

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Science  03 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6243, pp. 17
DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6243.17

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Summary

The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic left a troubling legacy in Europe: More than 1300 people who received a vaccine to prevent the flu developed narcolepsy, an incurable, debilitating condition that causes overpowering daytime sleepiness, sometimes accompanied by a sudden muscle weakness in response to strong emotions such as laughter or anger. The manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, has acknowledged the link, and some patients and their families have already been awarded compensation. But how the vaccine might have triggered the condition has been unclear. In a paper in Science Translational Medicine this week, researchers offer a possible explanation. They show that the vaccine, called Pandemrix, triggers antibodies that can also bind to a receptor in brain cells that help regulate sleepiness. The work strongly suggests that Pandemrix, which was given to more than 30 million Europeans, triggered an autoimmune reaction that led to narcolepsy in some people who are genetically at risk.