Universal flu vaccine might be a step closer

Did you get the flu last year? Unfortunately, that won't stop you getting it this year, or next year, or whenever bird flu or swine flu next strikes, because the virus mutates so rapidly. This means that the flu vaccine has to be made each year, based on a simple (and fallible) prediction of what is going to be the next year's prevailing strain. However, work from the Universities of Southampton and Oxford and the CRO Retroscreen Virology might make this annual guessing game a thing of the past.

The discovery, which is published in Nature Medicine, is also thanks to a group of healthy people who volunteered to be exposed to the influenza virus and have their blood tested as they fought off the infection. The U.K.-based teams found that the volunteers' white blood cells, known as T-cells, responded to a series of peptides from within the influenza virus. Because these peptides only change very slowly, they could form the basis for a universal vaccine that is effective against all strains of the bug. Most vaccines trigger an antibody response that is specific to that strain, but because these peptides trigger a T-cell response, this could provide a longer-lasting effect as well, adding another advantage.

Senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at the University of Southampton Dr. Tom Wilkinson, who led the study, says: "We have found that there is an important role for T-cells that recognize the flu virus, which if harnessed could protect against most or even all strains of seasonal and pandemic flu. Through this discovery we hope to improve vaccines for future strains of influenza; and potentially protect against the next pandemic. However there is more to do to translate these findings into new approaches to treatment."

So far, this is an early study suggesting a possible role for this type of peptide in creating a T-cell response. Much more research is needed before a universal vaccine could enter clinical trials. But such a vaccine, if it can be developed, could save many lives, particularly in the case of a global pandemic.

- read the press release
- check out the abstract