Science gets closer to a universal flu vaccine. New research shows promising results.
Is the end of seasonal flu shots in sight? Scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) discovered a way to induce antibodies to fight a wide range of influenza subtypes.
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"This study shows that we're moving in the right direction for a universal flu vaccine," said Ian Wilson, Hansen Professor of Structural Biology and chair of the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology at TSRI.
Seasonal flu typically causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths every year in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While a yearly flu shot provides some protection, subtypes not covered by the vaccine can emerge rapidly. This phenomenon was evident in the 2009 spread of the H1N1 ("swine flu") subtype that killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide.
Studies showed that some people are capable of making powerful antibodies that can fight many subtypes of influenza at once.
These antibodies targeting a site on the influenza virus that does not mutate rapidly. Unfortunately, these "broadly neutralizing antibodies," or bnAbs, are rare.
Janssen and TRSI tried creating an influenza vaccine specially designed to elicit them.
The researchers found a protein on the surface of influenza, called hemagglutinin (HA). HA is present on all subtypes of influenza, providing the key viral "machinery" that enables the virus to enter cells.
Most importantly, the long "stem" region of HA, which connects the virus to cells, plays such a crucial role that mutations at the site are unlikely to be passed on.
"If the body can make an immune response against the HA stem, it's difficult for the virus to escape," Wilson explained.
The scientists found that animals given one especially stable immunogen produced antibodies that could bind with HAs in many influenza subtypes, even neutralizing H5N1 viruses ("avian" or "bird" flu).
"This was the proof of principle," said Wilson. "These tests showed that antibodies elicited against one influenza subtype could protect against a different subtype."
"While there is more work to be done, the ultimate goal, of course, would be to create a life-long vaccine," Wilson said.
The study titled "A stable trimeric influenza hemagglutinin stem as a broadly protective immunogen," was published in Journal Science.
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Other authors were Nick S. Laursen, Peter S. Lee, and Wenli Yu of TSRI and Fin Milder, Harmjan Kuipers, Michelle Wagner,Ruud van Meersbergen, Jeroen Huizingh, Patrick Wanningen, Johan Verspuij, Martijn de Man, Zhaoqing Ding, Adrian Apetri, Basak Kuekrer, Eveline Sneekes-Vriese, Danuta Tomkiewicz, Anna Zakrzewska, Liesbeth Dekking, Jeroen Tolboom, Lisanne Tettero, Sander can Meerten, Wouter Koudstaal, Jaap Goudsmit and Wim Meijberg of Janssen.