If clinical trials go well, a new universal flu vaccine that would treat all strains of flu with a single shot could be just five years away. That would mean a future where nearly 20,000 people won't die due to a pandemic of the virus. A future where we wouldn't have to spend a week in bed in misery even though we got a fucking flu shot this year.
Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and at Canada's McMaster University began developing the vaccine three years ago after the discovery of a subclass of antibodies. When the body encounters influenza, it naturally produces these antibodies, which are able to recognize all strains of flu and mutations of the virus.
In current vaccines, these antibodies are provoked in the body in really low numbers, so there aren't enough to protect us against all strains and mutations of the virus, explained McMaster's Matthew Miller, an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences who has been developing the vaccine.
"What we thought was, if we could make a vaccine that could produce these antibodies in much larger numbers, then we could elicit a type of immunity that would provide universal protection from flu," Miller said.
Unlike the current vaccines, which only target certain strains of the flu, the universal vaccine would cover all strains and possible mutations, eliminating your yearly, crapshoot flu shot and ending global pandemics like H1N1.
To understand how it would work, Miller said it helps to visualize the flu virus as a balloon with lollipops stuck all over it.
"Those lollipops are the proteins that the virus uses to attach to the cells it infects," he said. "The current vaccines bind to the sucker part of the lollipop—the candy part—and that's the part that changes really rapidly. The universal vaccine makes antibodies that bind to the stick region of the lollipop, and that piece can't change."
In fact, if the flu virus tries to mutate its "stick portions," it makes the virus weaker, Miller said.
"Instead of becoming stronger, it actually basically self-destructs. So it could mutate that piece but it would actually kill itself in doing so."
The researchers have already tested the vaccine on animals—mice and ferrets, to be precise—and found it to be successful. Their latest research, published in the Journal of Virology, cleared the last hurdle they needed before going to clinical trials.
The issue was that, when they observed the antibodies in isolated, lab settings, they were very weak—especially compared to the antibodies that the current, strain-specific vaccines cause the body to produce. The team was worried that if the antibodies were too weak, the vaccine wouldn't be effective. So they stopped looking at the antibodies in isolated, lab settings and observed them in settings closer to how they would act in the human body.
"In that context, these broadly-neutralizing antibodies are almost as potent as the antibodies the current vaccines elicit, but with the added benefit of being able to recognize all strains," Miller said.
Their study also showed the antibodies produced in the lung—important for a respiratory virus like the flu—were especially effective.
Over the next year, they'll be moving to clinical trials in the US and Miller said if all things go well, we could see a universal flu vaccine in five to seven years. It's not a cure for the common cold, but it's the next best thing—and it could save a lot of lives.