Are we one step closer to a universal flu vaccine?
Alex Knapp, Forbes.com
Published Saturday, August 6, 2011 7:09AM EDT
Unlike most vaccines, flu shots are something that most of us end up getting every year. The reason for that is that the influenza virus has a rapid rate of mutation, forcing companies that manufacture the vaccine to make their best guess as to which flu types will be more prevalent in a given season.
The results are pretty good, but not perfect — especially if the vaccine doesn't end up matching with the season's most commonly circulating viruses. The gold standard of flu shots, of course, would be a universal flu shot – a vaccine that doesn't have to be prepared seasonally and can provide protection against many more strains of the virus.
Now it looks like we may be one step closer – thanks to the human immune system itself.
A recent study published last month in Science described a rather remarkable discovery – some people who had been exposed to the H1N1 strain of flu produced antibodies that reacted to multiple strains of the flu.
This isn't the first time such an antibody has been discovered, but this particular antibody was much broader in scope than those described in previous studies. Moreover, the structure that the antibody binds to is one that's conserved across many viral strains, indicating that it's much less likely to mutate.
That means that a vaccine targeting the same site would provide much greater protection against flu viruses than the current vaccine.
Of course, an antibody by itself doesn't make for a vaccine. But studying the structure of the antibody and the protein on the flu virus that it targets could make it that much more likely for a universal vaccine to be developed.