Flu breakthrough promises a vaccine to kill all strains
Scientists at Oxford University have successfully tested a universal flu vaccine that could work against all known strains of the illness, taking a significant step in the fight against a disease that affects billions of people each year.The treatment – using a new technique and tested for the first time on humans infected with flu – targets a different part of the flu virus to traditional vaccines, meaning it does not need expensive reformulation every year to match the most prevalent virus that is circulating the world.
Developed by a team led by Dr Sarah Gilbert at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, the vaccine targets proteins inside the flu virus that are common across all strains, instead of those that sit on the virus’s external coat, which are liable to mutate.
If used widely a universal flu vaccine could prevent pandemics, such as the swine flu outbreaks of recent years, and end the need for a seasonal flu jab.
A universal vaccine would save the time and money now needed to create vaccines to fight whatever particular virus has emerged in any year. The government spent an estimated £1.2bn in preparing for the swine flu outbreak of last winter.
The process of developing a seasonal vaccine takes at least four months and if the flu strain is highly pathogenic – as in 1918 when millions of people died – the delay means more people get sick and die before the vaccine is ready.
In her trial, Gilbert vaccinated 11 healthy volunteers and then infected them, along with 11 non-vaccinated volunteers, with the Wisconsin strain of the H3N2 influenza A virus, which was first isolated in 2005. She monitored the volunteers’ symptoms twice a day, including runny noses, coughs and sore throats, and she calculated how much mucus everyone produced by weighing tissues they used. Though a small study, it was significant in that it was the first vaccine of its type to be tested on people.
Gilbert said: “This is the first time anyone’s tested if you can boost somebody’s T-cell response to flu and, having done that, if it helps protect against getting flu. It’s the first time anybody’s done that in people.”
Her results showed that the vaccine worked as planned. “Fewer of the people who were vaccinated got flu than the people who weren’t vaccinated,” said Gilbert. “We did get an indication that the vaccine was protecting people, not only from the numbers of people who got flu but also from looking at their T-cells before we gave them flu. The people we vaccinated had T-cells that were more activated. The people we hadn’t vaccinated had T-cells as well but they were in a resting state so they would probably have taken longer to do anything. The volunteers we vaccinated had T-cells that were activated, primed and ready to kill. There were more T-cells in people we vaccinated and they were more activated.” Gilbert has now sent her results to a scientific journal.
“It’s essential for the virus because, if it doesn’t have the nucleoprotein, its genome isn’t stable. It can’t do without it and it can’t change it very much because it has a particular function and, if it mutates, it won’t work. Matrix protein 1 is a structural protein which is part of the inside of the shell around the virus.” Though Gilbert used the H3N2/Wisconsin strain in her trial, she can therefore be confident that her results will also hold for other strains.
This is why I love science.