A new generation of universal flu vaccines has been designed by an international team of scientists. The first vaccine is said to be able to provide protection against 88% of known influenza strains globally, while the second, aimed at the American market, covers up to 95% of known US flu strains.
This single shot solution could save millions by protecting against future global pandemics and might spell the end of the winter flu season
Dr Derek Gatherer of Lancaster University explained that a recent strain of flu is picked for the vaccine every year, hoping that it will protect against next year’s strains. This method works reasonably well most of the time and is safe. The method is however labor intensive and expensive, and sometimes it does not work as was the case in in the winter of 2014-2015 with the H3N2 vaccine failure. These annual vaccines also don’t provide any protection at all against potential future flu pandemics
According to the World Health Organization, up to half a million deaths are caused by annual flu epidemics globally. Millions of deaths were caused by previous pandemics such as the “Spanish flu” of 1918, and the two subsequent pandemics of 1957 and 1968.
Gatherer feels that computers can be used to design the components of a vaccine that gives protection that is both much broader and longer lasting. With our knowledge of the flu virus and the human immune system, this should in fact be relatively easy to do.
Dr Pedro Reche of Complutense University added that by using short flu virus fragments called epitopes as components of this vaccine, a universal flu vaccine is potentially within reach. The immune system already recognizes these epitopes and the current collaboration has found a way to select epitopes that is able to reach full population coverage.
According to Dr Darren Flower of Aston University, epitope-based vaccines have been around for a while, although most reports have no experimental validation.
The team has turned the problem on its head and only epitopes that has been tested previously were used. This allowed them to get the best of both worlds, designing a vaccine with a very high chance of success.
The next step is for the team to find partners in the pharmaceutical industry that will synthesize their vaccine for a proof of principle test in a laboratory.
Study was published in the journal Bioinformatics.