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
Charlie Cooper is Health Correspondent for The Independent, i, and The Independent on Sunday, writing on the NHS, medical advances, and international health. Since joining the papers as an editorial assistant, he has been nominated for young journalist of the year at both the Press Awards and the British Journalism Awards.
Sunday 22 September 2013
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.”
- 1 VMAs 2015: Was Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus' awkward acceptance put-down real or staged?
- 2 If you're not already angry about the migrant crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
- 3 The nine most warmongering countries in the world revealed
- 4 Rules on 5p plastic bags likely to lead to arguments at the check-out
- 5 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
VMAs 2015: Was Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus' awkward acceptance put-down real or staged?
Bank Holiday Monday opening times: Are Tesco, Asda and other supermarkets open today?
Rules on 5p plastic bags likely to lead to arguments at the check-out
The nine most warmongering countries in the world revealed
VMAs 2015: Kanye West runs for president, Nicki Minaj calls out Miley Cyrus and the list of winners in full
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...
£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...
£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...