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Medical Care
Vaccines (TB, Tetanus, etc.)

Toward a Universal Flu Vaccine

Flu vaccines must be given yearly, but there has been no guarantee that the strains against which they protect will be the ones circulating once the season arrives. Now research by Rockefeller University scientists in New York and their colleagues suggests it may be possible to harness a previously unknown mechanism within the immune system to create more effective and efficient vaccines against this ever-mutating virus. The paper was published July 2nd 2015 in the journal Cell,

A release from the university quotes senior study author Jeffrey Ravetch, Theresa and Eugene M. Lang Professor and head of the Leonard Wagner Laboratory of Molecular Genetics and Immunology, as saying, “While the conventional flu vaccine protects only against specific strains, usually three of them, our experiments show that by including modified antibodies within the vaccine it may be possible to elicit broad protection against many strains simultaneously. We believe these results may represent a preliminary step toward a universal flu vaccine, one that is effective against a broad range of the flu viruses.”

The team describes a new strategy that revolves around antibodies, immune proteins that target specific foreign proteins, called antigens. One end of the antibody latches on to an antigen, the other end, called the Fc region, binds to immune cells and so helps coordinate the immune response.

It was already known that chemical modifications to antibodies’ Fc region altered their interactions with immune cells, including B cells, which produce antibodies. In experiments that began with human volunteers, the team, led by Taia Wang, an instructor in clinical investigation, and Jad Maamary, a postdoc, both in Ravetch’s lab, investigated how changes to this region might be used to bolster an immune response: namely the production of more potent antibodies against the flu virus.

Every year in the United States, influenza is implicated in the deaths of thousands of people, mostly 65 and older, and causes serious disease in many others. The virus makes for a difficult target for vaccines because its strains are so diverse, and new ones are constantly emerging. Types A and B cause seasonal flu epidemics. Influenza A viruses are further broken down into subtypes based in part on their surface proteins, which include hemagglutinin, the “H” in H1N1, for example. The subtypes are further divided into strains.