By studying the genome of the influenza virus, researchers believe they may have come up with a way to develop a universal flu vaccine.
Scientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) say they have tested the vaccine “candidate” in animals with positive results.
They plan to test their nasal spray medication in animals with two strains of the flu virus and then move on to human trials.
The vaccine would also need to be evaluated and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
If the product works as expected, it could be effective against any strain of the flu and therefore be considered a universal flu vaccine.
If all goes well, the vaccine could potentially be used against other viruses.
The researchers reported their findings today in the journal Science.
Their news comes as the United States is battling one of its toughest flu seasons in years. Part of the reason is this year’s vaccine was only 10 percent effective in Australia against this year’s H3N2 strain.
“This is exactly the kind of research that should first be congratulated and then supported,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told Healthline.
How the vaccine works
The UCLA scientists spent four years studying the genomics of the influenza virus.
That included defining the function of every amino acid in the genome.
The scientists say with that knowledge they’ve been able to develop a vaccine that deactivates the virus’ sequences that prevent interferon production in the human body.
Interferons are proteins crucial to the human immune system. The proteins perform two main functions. They serve as a first line of defense to quickly kill invading viruses. They also spark an adaptive immune response that leads to long-lasting protection against that particular virus.
In the past, other researchers have developed techniques to disable sequences that block interferon. However, the UCLA scientists say they are the first to eliminate multiple interferon-evasion sites.
“Other researchers have knocked out one anti-interferon sequence, but we knocked out eight locations by changing one amino acid at a time,” Yushen Du, the study’s first author who recently earned his doctorate at UCLA, said in a statement.
“Previous pandemics and recent outbreaks of avian influenza highlight the need to develop vaccines that offer broader, more effective protection,” added Ren Sun, a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the study’s senior author.
A number of advantages
Schaffner said there would be a number of positive developments if the vaccine continues to work as well as it has in initial experiments.
The first, he said, is that the vaccine is disabling the virus’ defensive mechanism, which means it could be used against any strain of the virus.
This technique could also eventually mean people wouldn’t have to get a flu shot every year. They could wait as long as five years.
In addition, Schaffner noted, the vaccine could be taken any time during the year. You wouldn’t have to line up in the fall or winter at the beginning of the flu season.
The fact that the vaccine is a nasal spray also means it could be used at home instead of a doctor’s office.
Schaffner said that could encourage more people to use it as well as make it easier to increase vaccination rates in other countries.
“It could change the way we administer the vaccine,” he said.
Schaffner said the result could be a significant decrease in flu cases across the globe. In particular, he noted, the vaccine could be used in Southeast Asia, which has been the origin of some of the more powerful flu viruses in recent years.
He said this vaccine candidate appears to work in a way similar to how CAR T-cell treatments attack cancer cells.
“It’s a novel concept,” Schaffner said. “It’s a very exciting prospect in the search for an effective flu vaccine.”