Researchers test first universal flu vaccine

07 February 2011

Vaccines_i Stock
© iStock

Dr Sarah Gilbert, James Martin Fellow at the Institute for Vaccine Design at the Oxford Martin School, has led a study of a breakthrough flu vaccine that would protect a patient from all strains of flu.

A universal flu vaccine would mean the end of yearly flu jabs, and the annual race to reformulate a vaccine that matches the newest viral strain. The vaccine could also be stockpiled in advance to prevent pandemics when a new outbreak occurs.

Traditional vaccines prompt the production of antibodies that attack external proteins on the flu virus. Because these proteins mutate quickly, these vaccines work against only one strain of the virus. The new vaccine increases the body’s T-cell count, another important component of the immune system. The T-cells attack proteins that are internal to the virus, and are less likely to vary between viral strains.

A universal flu vaccine will also dramatically reduce healthcare costs. The UK spends £115 annually on flu vaccinations, and it is estimated that the government spent £1.2 billion in preparing for the swine flu outbreak of 2009. This type of vaccine has been highly sought for years.

Dr Gilbert, who is also a researcher with the Jenner Vaccine Institute, said, “If we were using the same vaccine year in, year out, it would be more like vaccinating against other diseases like tetanus. It would become a routine vaccination that would be manufactured and used all the time at a steady level. We wouldn't have these sudden demands or shortages – all that would stop."

It is also believed that the vaccine will provide better protection for older people, who are less effective at creating antibodies and do not respond as well to traditional vaccines that stimulate this response. Dr Gilbert and her team are currently testing this.

This initial study was the first to test such a vaccine on humans, and used 22 healthy volunteers who were infected with the Wisconsin strain of the H3N2 influenza A virus. Dr Gilbert’s team will continue trials of the new vaccine with several thousand people. If successful, it is expected the vaccine could be on the market in about five years.