Could a universal flu vaccine be in the works?
Two teams of researchers recently separately reported progress in developing vaccines that could offer protection against multiple flu strains by targeting the stem hemagglutinin glycoprotein of the flu virus, offering a new approach to confer immunity.
In research published in Science, scientists from the US and the Netherlands demonstrated the use of their approach on monkeys, while another group of researchers from the US and Japan published the results of their work conducted on mice and ferrets in Nature Medicine.
The key to both teams' research is that they targeted the stems that connect the ends of the hemagglutinin to the rest of the flu virus. Typically, flu vaccines work by causing the human immune system to produce antibodies to attach to the flu virus's hemagglutinin, used by the virus to access a person's cells. The antibodies prevent the virus from accessing the cells, but in each flu strain the hemagglutinin is structured differently. Adding to the virus's slippery nature is that it changes genetically rapidly, rendering one season's vaccine useless the next season.
Because the hemagglutinin's stems are structurally similar from strain to strain, an antibody attacking the stem should be able to protect against multiple strains, the theory goes.
While the new vaccine type is still years away from having any clinical use, the two studies are seen as breakthroughs by some. Peter Palese, a flu expert at Mount Sinai Hospital told The Huffington Post that the studies are "very good…There are no problems with them. What we need to do now is put [the vaccines] in humans and see if they work."
But even if they do, it is unknown how long they would confer immunity, since no one knows for how long the vaccines would trigger the body to produce sufficient amounts of the antibodies that target the stems.
"The goal would be to try to make it so that you don't have to get immunized every year — but maybe once every five or 10 years," Scripps Research Institute researcher and an author of the Science paper Ian Wilson told The Huffington Post. "That would be a major step forward."