Innovative Universal Flu Vaccine
For epidemiologists, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly intensified their long-standing nightmare about another virus: the emergence of a new and deadly strain of flu. A universal flu vaccine, effective against any strain of the influenza virus that can infect humans, could protect us from this peril, but progress has been slow. A novel concept for one universal vaccine candidate has now passed its first test in a small clinical trial, its developers report today in Nature Medicine.
Seasonal flu vaccines induce antibodies against the “head” (slate) of the influenza surface protein hemagglutinin, but a new universal vaccine triggers antibodies (fragments of them shown in gray) that bind to the stalk (light blue) portion
“This is an important paper,” says Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who studies influenza transmission and vaccines.
The influenza virus rapidly accumulates mutations and easily “reassorts,” or swaps, genes between strains, creating variants that can dodge any past immunity people had acquired naturally or from vaccines. That’s why a new flu vaccine must be developed each year. Existing flu vaccines contain weakened or inactivated influenza viruses with a mix of hemagglutinins (HAs), the proteins that stud their surfaces. These vaccines primarily aim to trigger antibody responses against HA’s top part, or head. Genetic changes in flu viruses rarely alter most of the head. But a small part of the head does reassort, or mutate, frequently, which allows new viral strains to dodge any immune memory and forces flu vaccinemakers to prepare new formulations each year, with updated HAs.
In the trial, 51 participants received the various vaccines and their antibodies were compared with those of 15 people who received placebos. A single shot of vaccine with chimeric HA inactivated viruses, the researchers report, “induced remarkably high antistalk antibody titers.”