With nearly every American state reporting widespread influenza activity, researchers are stepping up efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine
David Royse | LedeTree
This year, as the world coincidentally marks the 100-year anniversary of the worst flu pandemic ever, is shaping up to be another bad year. This season’s virus, H3N2, is more deadly than other strains, and nearly every state is now reporting widespread flu activity.
That has infectious disease experts pushing for a better way to fight flu.
As long as the medical/pharma community needs to develop, produce and distribute a new vaccine each season to fight a changing part of the virus, time will be an enemy, particularly if there’s a fast-spreading, especially serious version of the virus.
As the Journal Nature noted this week, “the 2009 swine flu pandemic showed that it takes months to start producing a vaccine against a pandemic flu virus. In many countries, substantial amounts of vaccine arrived only after the first wave of infection had already passed. Fortunately, the 2009 virus was relatively mild.”
This week, Wayne Koff, the president of the Human Vaccines Project in New York was joined by Nobel Laureate immunologist Peter Doherty and former FDA Commissioner and current foreign secretary of the National Academy of Medicine Margaret Hamburg in saying that “a new approach is urgently needed on flu vaccines.”
“Public health experts have traditionally fought skirmishes against influenza,” they wrote. “We believe that the time has come to mount an all-out assault on it by decoding the human immune system.”
Even when vaccine developers get the formula right and correctly predict what type of strain they’ll be fighting, the vaccine is still only about 60 percent effective, they note. (And sometimes their intelligence is wrong, and we make a vaccine for a flu strain that turns out not to be the one that makes people sick.)
“Make no mistake: Vaccines are among the most effective public health interventions in human history, second only to clean drinking water in the magnitude of their impact,” they wrote. But they have limits, including the need to update the vaccine each year.
But immunological science could on the verge of major breakthroughs, thanks to recent advances in our genetic understanding.
“Decoding the human immune system holds the key to the development of … new and improved vaccines,” Koff and his colleagues wrote. The result could be much better targeting of viruses that will make vaccine design more efficient.
“It won’t be cheap, and it won’t be easy,” they acknowledge. “Decoding the human immune system will take a decade of research and cost more than $1 billion. It will require innovative public-private partnerships working collectively to decipher the common components and rules of human immunity. But the return on investment — a blueprint for how the immune system fights disease — will be extraordinary and applicable to all facets of human health.
“Deciphering how the human immune system combats disease is one of the greatest frontiers of science, and is now within reach. If society grasps this unprecedented opportunity, commits resources to it, and facilitates creative new models for working together across multiple scientific disciplines, we can not only eliminate the threat of pandemic influenza but reshape how we approach all life-threatening diseases.”
There are potential changes already in the flu vaccine research pipeline, most notably efforts at changing the part of the virus that vaccines attack as a way of making the flu vaccine more “universal,” or not having to be changed each season.
Current vaccines fight flu infection by spurring the creation of antibodies that target one particular part of one specific protein, a part of the protein known as the head. But that part of the virus changes from flu season to flu season, which is why the vaccine has to be changed each year.
Scientists discovered a few years ago that another part of the virus, the stem of the same particular protein, usually remains the same from season to season, which may make it a good target for antibodies, and could mean we could have a flu vaccine that could remain largely constant and last longer, potentially saving lives.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is working on this.
“A key focus of NIAID’s influenza research program is developing a universal flu vaccine, or a vaccine that provides robust, long-lasting protection against multiple subtypes of flu, rather than a select few,” the institute says on its website. “Such a vaccine would eliminate the need to update and administer the seasonal flu vaccine each year and could provide protection against newly emerging flu strains, potentially including those that could cause a flu pandemic.”
One experimental vaccine has shown promise in animal testing and is being evaluated for future trials in humans.