October 31, 2016
We’re all familiar with the flu, the cold weather specter that sends us all scurrying to the nearest pharmacy for a yearly flu shot. The flu is mostly preventable, but the need for a yearly vaccination can become tedious, and many people skip it altogether.
The reason people find themselves at the pharmacy to get a new flu shot every year is because the influenza virus is always changing and mutating, rendering each vaccination ineffective after a time. That’s why scientists are working on ongoing research to try to find a way to make the flu vaccine universal – that is, a vaccine that’s effective even after the virus mutates. This is a project that’s been in the works for years, and multiple institutions (McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine in Canada, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, and the University of Chicago) are involved in continuing studies of the influenza virus.
In a past study, antibodies were discovered that are able to train the immune system to latch onto parts of the influenza virus that remain the same each year. If scientists can find a way to zero in on those parts of the virus that never change and are always recognizable to these antibodies, the potential for a universal one-time flu vaccine becomes a real possibility.
According to senior author of the study and assistant professor at McMaster, Dr. Matthew Miller, Ph.D., “Antibodies work in two ways. One way is by binding to the virus and preventing it from infecting cells. Another way is by recruiting other cells of your immune system in to kill infected cells.” Miller continues to explain that universal vaccines work by recruiting cells to come in and eliminate the infected cells. The flu vaccine would do the same: call in the white blood cell troops, and order them to decimate any infected cells.
But not just any antibodies can get the job done. Miller clarifies that in order for a universal vaccine to work, the antibodies need to grab onto very specific places on the virus so they can begin recruiting white blood cells. The key is creating the right kind of antibodies that will bind to the correct places on the influenza virus. It may sound complex, but Miller states that since they now know where on the virus the antibodies need to bind, the next order of business is altering the vaccines to generate those specific antibodies in greater volume.
Miller also expressed concern that people don’t take the flu seriously enough, saying, “Of all the diseases that are currently out there, flu is the only one that over the course of the last 100 years has constantly demonstrated its ability to cause pandemics in humans. Since 1918, we've had four flu pandemics and we've had essentially no other pandemics of infectious agents, other than HIV.”
Despite the strides Miller and his colleagues are making on the road to a universal flu vaccine, such a product probably wouldn’t be on the market for another 5 to 10 years. If a universal vaccine does come to fruition, though, it could mean thousands of lives saved.
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