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 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 to be expensively reformulated 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 that 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. “The problem with flu is that you’ve got lots of different strains and they keep changing,” said Adrian Hill, the director of the Jenner Institute.
“Occasionally, one comes out of wildfowl or pigs and we’re not immune. We need new vaccines and we can’t make them fast enough.”
In the UK the government spent an estimated £1,2-billion 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, 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 the tissues they used.
The next step for the vaccine is to stage a field trial in which several thousands are given the vaccine and their outcomes are compared with several thousands who do not get it.
It will take several more years, therefore, before Gilbert’s vaccine can be licensed for use alongside traditional antibody-inducing vaccines. — Guardian News & Media 2011