‘Breakthrough’ promises a ‘one-size fits all’ miracle vaccine

Alok Jha
UK Guardian
February 7, 2011

Scientists at Oxford University have successfully tested a universal flu vaccine that could work against all known strains of the illness, taking a significant step in the fight against a disease that affects billions of people each year.

The treatment – using a new technique and tested for the first time on humans infected with flu – targets a different part of the flu virus to traditional vaccines, meaning it does not need expensive reformulation every year to match the most prevalent virus that is circulating the world.

Developed by a team led by Dr Sarah Gilbert at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, the vaccine targets proteins inside the flu virus that are common across all strains, instead of those that sit on the virus’s external coat, which are liable to mutate.

If used widely a universal flu vaccine could prevent pandemics, such as the swine flu outbreaks of recent years, and end the need for a seasonal flu jab.

“The problem with flu is that you’ve got lots of different strains and they keep changing,” said Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute. “Occasionally one comes out of wildfowl or pigs and we’re not immune to it. We need new vaccines and we can’t make them fast enough.”

A universal vaccine would save the time and money now needed to create vaccines to fight whatever particular virus has emerged in any year. The government spent an estimated £1.2bn in preparing for the swine flu outbreak of last winter.

The process of developing a seasonal vaccine takes at least four months and if the flu strain is highly pathogenic – as in 1918 when millions of people died – the delay means more people get sick and die before the vaccine is ready.

This winter the government was criticised for its handling of the annual winter flu outbreak. Shortages of the seasonal flu vaccine became so acute in some areas that GPs were told to use old stocks of swine flu vaccine instead.

“If we were using the same vaccine year in, year out, it would be more like vaccinating against other diseases like tetanus,” said Gilbert. “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.”

Note: … there are clearly enormous issues with this test. Nucleoproteins that are wrapped and not exposed to the surface, though far less mutable, clearly will be useless in terms of antibody production that can attack intact virus and in terms of production of effective memory cells. Thus, what we have is an injection of foreign protein that activates T-cells (as any foreign protein would). How long does T-cell activation last? Would one need , for example, to be vaccinated every 72 hours? Would any foreign protein (viral nuclear protein or ham sandwich) elicit the same effect? It is not surprising that priming the immune system will help in fighting subsequent infection. The question is how much virus was introduced into the test subjects: enough to produce a clinically/pathologically significant viral load. Diminution of basic symptoms associated with any inflammatory response for test subjects with pre-primed immune response is or should be expected. The quantitative assessment with viral titers and adequate controls is sorely needed to make this story a story.

– Taken from commentary written on the Guardian

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