Vaccitech 'universal' flu shot set for phase 2 study in U.K.

Officials in England are prepping a phase 2 study on Vaccitech's "universal" flu vaccine candidate.

Hoping to improve on the flu vaccine status quo, researchers in England are getting ready to start the world's first large human trial of a "universal" influenza shot.

Developed by Oxford University's Jenner Institute and spinoff Vaccitech, the vaccine will undergo testing in 500 participants in the U.K. who are 65 or older this winter. Sometimes regarded as the Holy Grail of vaccine development, "universal" flu shots are designed to protect against many strains of flu and avoid the pitfalls of traditional vaccines.  

Even if participants get the flu after receiving the candidate shot, researchers believe the illness will not last as long or be as severe, according to an National Institute for Health Research announcement on the trial.

Because flu strains can mutate, traditional flu vaccines sometimes get mismatched with the strain that ends up in circulation. Further, extended production timelines for traditional vaccines force health authorities to make strain predictions that sometimes are incorrect. 

While existing vaccines use surface proteins on the flu virus to elicit a response, Vaccitech's shot targets core proteins that remain unchanged, the company says. So far, the candidate has undergone testing in 150 participants across five clinical trials, according to Vaccitech's website.

But it will be no easy task to bring a universal candidate to market. After a previous safety study, the investigators now plan to test the universal candidate, plus a traditional flu shot, against placebo and a traditional flu vaccine. Even if the results prove promising, further testing would be needed on the candidate.  

With the universal flu shot serving as its lead program, Vaccitech launched with £10 million in funding last year. Oxford Sciences Innovation, Invesco, Lansdowne Partners and Woodford Investment Management participated in the fundraising, the Financial Times reported. 

Researchers have long been working to improve flu vaccines, with Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson among the large pharma companies active in the field. Smaller biotechs such as FluGen and BiondVax, as well as academic and federal institutions, are also working on next-gen options.