A 'universal' flu vaccine is in the works


While flu vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year, the vaccine’s prevention rate is never perfect. As a result, plenty of people just skip getting the flu shot, ignoring all recommendations to the contrary from the medical community. But with new research just released about flu vaccine research, it seems we’re closer than ever to finding a significantly more effective influenza immunization.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Researchers at Georgia State University have come up with a universal vaccine, to fight influenza A viruses, that produces long-lasting immunity in mice. The researchers shared their findings in a new study published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

For the study, scientists vaccinated mice twice with double-layered protein nanoparticles that target the stalk of the influenza virus’s surface protein, which is called hemagglutinin. The researchers discovered that this fully protected the mice against several forms of influenza A viruses, including H1N1, H5N1, H7N9, and H3N2 — the predominant strain of this year’s flu. It also dramatically reduced the amount of the virus that was found in the lungs of the mice.

There are two major types of the flu — influenza A and influenza B — and while this particular vaccine doesn’t protect against both, it still serves an important purpose. “Influenza A tends to be more severe and is the type of virus that causes pandemics,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. There are other universal vaccines in the works, and if one eventually makes it to the public, it could drastically change the way people look at the flu. With a universal vaccine, people may need to get a shot only once or twice in their lifetime, which increases the odds that people will actually get it, Adalja notes. The efficacy rate may also be closer to that of something like the measles vaccine, which is 95 percent effective, he adds. (This year’s seasonal flu vaccine, by comparison, is only estimated to be about 30 percent effective.)

A universal flu vaccine would be a big change from the current flu vaccine methodology. As of now, seasonal flu vaccines have to be updated every year to try to protect the public against strains of the virus that scientists predict will be the most common in the upcoming year, Adalja tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Developing a universal vaccine for influenza is a Holy Grail for the field,” he says. “It really would eliminate the problems we have.”

The universal vaccine being researched at Georgia State University will “greatly reduce if not eradicate” mismatches between the flu in the wild and the flu vaccine, lead study author Lei Deng, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. It could also help address vaccine shortages, which are currently happening around the country. “Because our vaccine is universal and much more stable (that is, it has a much longer expiration date), it can be produced in very large quantities ahead of every flu season and stockpiled for times of greater need,” Deng says.

People can also contract the flu at any time of the year, and having a universal flu shot means you’ll be protected, period, Deng says.

While the study was conducted in mice, Adalja says the results are “really promising” for humans. “It will be important to follow this up,” he says.

Next, Deng and his colleagues plan to test their vaccine on ferrets, whose respiratory system is similar to that of humans.

The flu kills between 12,000 and 56,000 people in the U.S. each year, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and this year’s flu has already killed at least 30 children.

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