NIH steps in with $9M Vanderbilt grant after rough season for flu vaccines

After a troublesome flu vaccine season, the NIH has announced that it'll lend a hand to Vanderbilt University as researchers there attempt to develop an improved, "universal" vaccine against the virus.

In a 5-year deal, the NIH will provide $9 million to Vanderbilt as it works with The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, using a computer program "Rosetta" to predict the protein structure of amino acid sequences.

The researchers will look to improve on current flu vaccines, which use weakened or inactivated forms of the virus to trigger an immune response. As a result of strain changes, flu vaccines have the potential for drastically reduced efficacy, a problem that researchers Dr. James Crowe Jr. and Jens Meiler of Vanderbilt say can be remedied with a new type of vaccine.

Flu vaccines could protect against all strains, the researchers told the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Reporter, if they induced immunity against highly conserved, constant places on protein surfaces that are present in every flu virus.

The news come as industry looks back in reflection on the 2014-2015 flu vaccine season that saw effectiveness fall off a cliff for the year. After the flu strains mutated from what were contained in the distributed vaccines, the jabs for the season were just 19% effective in preventing medical visits, compared with around 50% over the last three years.

Vanderbilt isn't the only group looking for solutions, though, as companies including Protein Sciences market cell-culture vaccines in the U.S. that are drastically quicker to manufacture than the traditional 6-month traditional chicken egg manufacturing process. And Israel's Biondvax last week raised $9.5 million through a Nasdaq IPO while it works on its own universal flu vaccine.

- here's the VUMC Reporter story