Scientists discover 'blue print' for revolutionary universal flu vaccine

A set of naturally occurring immune cells could play a crucial role in the body's resistance to flu

Scientists have discovered the “blue print” for a revolutionary universal flu vaccine that could protect against all strains of seasonal influenza – even new deadly new viruses never encountered before.

A study which involved a rapidly-organised “natural experiment” triggered by the swine flu pandemic of autumn 2009 has uncovered strong evidence that a set of naturally occurring immune cells could play a crucial role in the body's resistance to flu.

More than 300 staff and students at Imperial College London were recruited for the study at the start of the pandemic and their conditions monitored for the length of the outbreak. The findings were published in the journal Nature Medicine on Sunday.

Those who avoided severe illness were found to have more CD8 T cells, a type of virus-killing immune cell, in their blood at the start of the pandemic.

Professor Ajit Lalvani, from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, who led the study, said that a vaccine that made the body produce more of these cells had the potential to be “the Holy Grail”: a universal vaccine effective against all strains of flu.

“The immune system produces these CD8 T cells in response to usual seasonal flu,” Prof Lalvani said. “Unlike antibodies, they target the core of the virus, which doesn’t change, even in new pandemic strains. The 2009 pandemic provided a unique natural experiment to test whether T cells could recognise, and protect us against, new strains that we haven’t encountered before and to which we lack antibodies.”

Existing flu vaccines make the immune system create antibodies that recognise structures on the surface of the virus, to prevent infection with the most prevalent current strains. However, health authorities are often one step behind as new viruses with different surface structures are constantly evolving and vaccines have to be changed each year.

“New strains of flu are continuously emerging, some of which are deadly, and so the Holy Grail is to create a universal vaccine that would be effective against all strains of flu,” Prof Lalvani said.

Health authorities welcomed the study, which could mark a major step in protecting populations against possibly deadly future flu outbreaks.

Dr Richard Pebody, responsible for flu surveillance in the Respiratory Diseases Department at Public Health England said: “Influenza is continually evolving and it is difficult to predict what strains will emerge each year. These findings contribute to the science to determine if it is possible to develop a universal vaccine to protect a population against all strains of flu. The study results are a timely reminder for people to get their flu jab this winter.”

The swine flu outbreak of 2009 killed more than 200 people in the UK, with the virus infecting millions worldwide. Historically, flu outbreaks have had a devastating effect. Tens of millions of people died worldwide during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

Global health authorities are currently monitoring the spread of a new strain of bird flu, H7N9, described by the World Health Organisation as an “unusually dangerous virus for humans”. As of late August, the virus had infected 135 people in China and resulted in 44 deaths since February.

Prof Lalvani said that, in theory, the potentially universal vaccine may not be far off.

“We already know how to stimulate the immune system to make CD8 T cells by vaccination,” he said. “Now that we know these T cells may protect, we can design a vaccine to prevent people getting symptoms and transmitting infection to others. This could curb seasonal flu annually and protect people against future pandemics.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Permanent Class Teachers Required for 2015/2016 - Suffolk

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teachers seeking perma...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teachers Required in Norwich and Great Yarmouth

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am working on behalf of a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate - Newly Qualified Teachers Required For Sept 2015

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate Teachers/ Newly Qua...

Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate - Newly Qualified Teachers Required For Sept 2015

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate Teachers/ Newly Qua...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food