Scientists Close in on New, Universal Flu Vaccine

Keeping up with yearly flu vaccines can be tough. Getting poked by a needle feels terrible, but it is much better than catching the flu virus, which can kill you. Recently, scientists announced they may be able to develop a universal flu vaccine. This would mean no more yearly vaccines and less pain.

A vaccine works by having a weakened or disabled version of the virus introduced to your body. The immune system will fight the weakened virus and, by doing this, will learn how it can kill the real virus. The body learns to kill that virus quickly, before it can develop any symptoms.

Statistics show that the risk of dying from the flu changes from year to year. Some years fewer people die, but other years can be far worse. For example, in the winter of 2012-2013, 56,000 U.S. citizens died from the flu. This is because there are many variants of the flu virus. The yearly vaccines are not always effective at preventing the flu because they target a limited number of variants. That’s why the deployment of an effective, universal flu vaccine is so important. A universal flu vaccine would target every flu variant.

A group of researchers may have developed just such a vaccine. Their study is led by Eric Weaver, a virologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This vaccine works a lot like a normal vaccine. But, instead of targeting one specific variant of the virus, it tries to target characteristics that all the others have in common. The researchers also added a part of the cold virus so it could replicate itself.

The vaccine was then tested on lab mice. They gave some mice a low dosage of the vaccine, other mice a high dosage. Some other mice got a high dose of flumist, the standard non-injectable flu vaccine, and the remaining mice got a high dose of fluzone, the normal flu vaccine. Then they exposed the mice to the flu virus. All the mice that weren’t protected by the researchers’ vaccine died.

“The mice [were] protected extremely well by this vaccine,” Weaver says.

Although the vaccine works very well, there is a problem. Because most adults have already been exposed to a part of the vaccine, their immune system attacks the universal vaccine, preventing it from causing universal immunity. This problem must be solved before the elimination of the flu among humans can occur.

[Source: Science News for Students]