A universal flu vaccine is the holy grail of influenza immunizations. The yearly process of making educated guesses about the upcoming flu season would end, replaced by a vaccine for many of the strains. It is a massive challenge, but researchers are starting to make progress.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health--two of whom now work at Sanofi ($SNY) and AstraZeneca's ($AZ) biotech unit, MedImmune--are behind the latest advance. In a paper published in Nature, the team describes how viral protein nanoparticles induced an immune response against a wide range of flu strains in animal tests. The vaccine was built using haemagglutinin from a 1999 strain of H1N1, but it also protected against other H1N1 variants. Researchers think it could even immunize the body against strains of H1N1 that are yet to evolve.
"We think this is a step down the path towards a universal vaccine. It's not a universal vaccine yet. There's lots of research in the early phases and this looks as good as anything out there," Sanofi chief scientific officer Dr. Gary Nabel told the BBC. The vaccine only offers protection against H1 strains--so different shots for H1 to H17 would be needed--but this still represents a major step forward. Being able to immunize the population against pandemic influenza strains that are yet to emerge would allow governments to take a more proactive approach to defense.
At the moment, health authorities enter into a race to develop a vaccine whenever a pandemic flu strain emerges. Response time is paramount, and the technology underpinning the universal flu vaccine may be able to help here too. Production of the universal vaccine requires neither eggs nor cell culture. Instead, the self-assembling nanoparticles are made in the lab. "In theory, a new version could be produced quickly once a new pandemic virus had been identified, or a new seasonal variant started to circulate," University of Oxford vaccine researcher Sarah Gilbert told Nature.
Editor's Note: This article was corrected to reflect the employment status of the Sanofi and MedImmune researchers at the time of the project. The research was done by NIH.