Science

Possibility of a universal flu vaccine on the horizon

By Holly Giles

Flu is often referred to as The Silent Killer, being a condition far worse than a sniffly nose and a tickly cough; it is estimated to have caused up to 79,000 deaths annually since 2010. Meaning around 700,000 people have been killed by the flu since 2010. The development and implications of the “flu shot”, an injection of a weakened strain of the virus used to protect people from the condition, had drastically decreased the number of hospital admissions and ultimately fatalities from Influenza, but it is far from perfect as Barney Graham deputy director of the Vaccine Research Centre explains: “The 2009 pandemic made it obvious and clear that we didn’t have good enough solutions for influenza vaccines. We knew the virus, but we weren’t able to make enough vaccine quickly enough”. 

Virus’ can mutate and change meaning a specific flu vaccine can have between 60% protection and as low as 10% protection if the patient is exposed to a different strain. The phrase “universal flu vaccine”, a vaccine which could provide protection against all strains of the virus regardless of mutations, has been a far-off pipedream for many but with recent developments it may be a step closer to becoming a reality. This is due to the work of Washington University School of Medicine and the Icahn School of Medicine in a team headed up by three senior co-authors, including Ali Ellebedy. This ideas was first formed by Ellebedy when he found a unexpected antibodies in the blood sample of a flu patient. Upon examination he found one of these antibodies blocked all known types of flu virus activity, both human and nonhuman strains. Krammer, another senior coauthor, explained: “The breadth of the antibodies really came as a surprise to us,” says Krammer. “Typically, anti-neuraminidase antibodies can be broad within a subtype, like H1N1, but an antibody with potent activity across subtypes was unheard of. At first, we did not believe our results. Especially the ability of the antibodies to cross between influenza A and influenza B viruses is just mind-boggling. It is amazing what the human immune system is capable of if presented with the right antigens.”
They then tested this theory further using mice given a fatal dose of influenze. When given the antibody all the mice survived; this is a ground brasking result and suggests “you might be able to use this antibody in an intensive care scenario when you have someone sick with flu and it’s too late to use Tamiflu” explains Ellebedy. Tamiflu must be administered within 24 hours of symptoms but in this experiment mice survived even if they were given the antibody 72 hours later. This extra time could transform medical practice and save thousands of lives. The investigation has now continued with new vigour as researchers know the targets and the scope of their findings. They hope to be able to run clinical trials in the near-distant future meaning a universal flu vaccine is now only a matter of time.

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