Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Stephen O'Brien MP, on a recent visit to Ethiopia
Science

Universal influenza vaccine developed

Scientists may have come up with a new way to tackle one of winter’s biggest killers. A universal flu vaccine may be available within three years, taking over from the current system of annual injections or nasal sprays. At present, the injections given comprise of three or four deactivated strains of flu virus that are considered to be at risk of becoming the most virulent that year. However, this method is not considered to be particularly effective; last year’s vaccine only protected one in three adults due to mismatches in the formulation of the vaccine. Additionally, the World Heath Organisation can’t always accurately predict which flu strains will arise.

Scientists at London-based biotech firm ‘Seek’ have developed the new vaccine concept, known as FLU-v. The vaccine works by protecting the body against non-mutating protein elements of the flu virus: proteins that are present and common in all types of flu. FLU-v boosts the creation of immune cells which are able to kill the non-mutating proteins.

Olga Pleguezuelos, lead immunologist at Seek, said to the Sunday Times: “We are confident that this will protect people from any new strain of flu and we are hoping it will be fast-tracked through the regulatory process. The hope is that it will confer many years of immunity from flu.”

Previous vaccine treatments made available to protect people against viruses such as the flu are not fully effective as viruses can mutate rapidly and change features such as their surface proteins. Vaccines work by injecting a small amount of the antigen into the patient so they can form an immune response and therefore have an immune memory should they be reinfected. If the surface proteins on the virus change by mutation, the immune system won’t be able to recognise the virus to fight it off. A vaccine that works one year to develop a certain immune response can be entirely ineffective another year with a different viral strain.

Flu has been estimated to kill up to 12,000 people in Britain every year despite vaccines being offered to people in at-risk groups such as the elderly and pregnant women. This new vaccine, although in the preliminary stages, may offer a promising new means to prevent the horrible illness – although it might not prevent your self-inflicted fresher’s flu.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Washington (Niaid) has pledged £1 million to facilitate the development of the product by launching larger scale trials of the vaccine. The trials will involve infecting up to 100 volunteers with a flu virus. Half of them will then be administered FLU-v and the rest a placebo, truly taking one for the team. John Oxford, Professor of Virology at Queen Mary University of London and collaborator on the FLU-v project said: “I am delighted the Niaid is helping to finance it. It is very promising and we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

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