Universal flu vaccine in development

A universal flu vaccine that protects against current and all future and mutated strains of flu, and only needs to be given once is in development.

Influenza (flu) is a viral infection that is passed from one person to another through the air and it normally strikes between October and May. It usually lasts from three to five days but some people are at risk of developing severe complications. These include the elderly and people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart, lung, kidney, liver and neurological diseases or anyone with a compromised immune system. It is therefore advisable for these people to get vaccinated against flu each year. The seasonal vaccination protects against three or four strains of influenza virus that research indicates will be the most common during the upcoming winter season. However, as the virus is continually mutating it is necessary to have a new vaccine each year. A universal flu vaccine would solve this problem.

The new research was conducted by McMaster University's Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine in Canada, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, and the University of Chicago. It builds upon an earlier study that uncovered a class of antibodies that are capable of neutralising the most dangerous types of influenza viruses.

Seasonal flu vaccines work by causing antibodies to develop in the body about 2 weeks after vaccination. These antibodies bind to the virus and prevent it from infecting cells. Universal vaccines work in the same way, but they also recruit white blood cells to destroy infected cells. While certain antibodies work together to recruit the helpful white blood cells, other antibodies block their recruitment. The researchers found that where the antibodies bind on the virus makes a significant difference.

Generating most desirable antibodies

Dr Matthew Miller, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University explains: “Antibodies work in two ways. One way is by binding to the virus and preventing it from infecting cells. Another way is by recruiting other cells of your immune system in to kill infected cells.”

Everybody used to think as long as antibodies were present; these cells would be called in. Our findings show that just having antibodies isn't enough. You have to have antibodies that bind to very specific places on the virus. And so now we know the places where antibodies have to bind to call in these cells, we can modify our vaccines so that we can generate those antibodies in higher numbers" he adds.

The team is hopeful that a universal flu vaccine could become available within the next 5 years.

“What we can now do is specifically design our universal vaccine to generate the most desirable types of antibodies and avoid antibodies that block the functions that we want. So, in doing that we can make sure that the vaccine will work in the most effective way possible," Dr Miller commented.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Special proteins in the blood that are produced in response to a specific antigen and play a key role in immunity and allergy. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
A condition that is linked to, or is a consequence of, another disease or procedure. Full medical glossary
A disorder caused by insufficient or absent production of the hormone insulin by the pancreas, or because the tissues are resistant to the effects. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of genetic material carried on chromosomes. Full medical glossary
The organs specialised to fight infection. Full medical glossary
Invasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. Full medical glossary
A viral infection affecting the respiratory system. Full medical glossary
One of two bean-shaped organs that are located on either side of the body, below the ribcage. The main role of the kidneys is to filter out waste products from the blood. Full medical glossary
A large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Full medical glossary

Associated with the nervous system and the brain.

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A group of cells with a similar structure and a specialised function. Full medical glossary
Relating to the urinary tract. Full medical glossary
The means of producing immunity by stimulating the formation of antibodies. Full medical glossary
A microbe that is only able to multiply within living cells. Full medical glossary
Microbes that are only able to multiply within living cells. Full medical glossary
A type of blood cell that protects the body against foreign substances and produces antibodies. Full medical glossary