Researchers have identified a candidate for a universal flu vaccine that has the potential to protect people against a majority of strains of influenza. These researchers are from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and have published their study in Nature Communications.
The newly found vaccine elicits a strong antibody response to the structure on the surface of flu viruses, known as the hemagglutinin (HA) stalk. When researchers gave the vaccine to mice, they were protected from various flu strains. The vaccine would be used in a manner like that of the tetanus vaccine. To provide continual protection, the vaccine would be administered a few times throughout a person’s life.
A majority of modern viral vaccines use lab-grown viral proteins to prompt an immune response that will protect a person against future exposure. In the case of influenza, this strategy has not had much success in the past. According to the study’s co-senior author, Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the new vaccine candidate could prompt protective responses against a set region that offers widespread protection.
Typical seasonal flu vaccines use mushroom-like HA proteins in flu virus particles to prompt antibody responses. These responses are usually aimed at the outermost part of the HA protein, which tends to mutate rapidly. As flu strains vary with each season, each strain develops a different HA head structure. Seasonal vaccines can then only offer temporary and incomplete protection.
The vaccine from Penn instead addresses the immune system’s dendritic cells. The vaccine encourages the production of viral proteins within the cells, more accurately mimicking a real flu infection and eliciting a more powerful protective response from antibodies.
While the results from the study were very encouraging, the vaccine still faces the hurdle of proper funding. Developing a vaccine can take anywhere from 10 to 15 years. The researchers will need to test the vaccine on primates and humans next.
Although the universal vaccine isn’t quite ready for this season, organizations big and small are doing all they can to encourage people to stay healthy and get the seasonal flu vaccine. Many pharmacies offer free flu shots as the months get colder, but that primarily applies for those with insurance or qualifying Medicare plans.
Big-name corporations, like Target and Publix, will be offering monetary incentives this flu season. Publix is giving out a $10 gift card to every person who gets a free flu shot there. Target is offering a $5 gift card to those who get their shot at a Target CVS Pharmacy. The CDC recommends getting the flu vaccine before the end of October, when breakouts of the virus start to spread.