Massachusetts researchers seek better design for flu vaccines

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School are working to develop new methods for predicting changes in the influenza virus and how it evolves to the human immune system and anti-viral drugs.

Robert W. Finberg, a professor of medicine at the university, is the lead investigator on the $12 million project that could result in the creation of a more effective flu vaccine.

"Historically, flu vaccines are made from strains that are currently circulating," Finberg said. "What we're trying to do is determine what the future virus will be."

The influenza virus is a highly contagious, acute respiratory illness that infects 10 percent of the population every year on average. In severe years, influenza can infect as much as 50 percent of the population.

Vaccines are derived from the most recent flu cases available and provide protection against infection for approximately 60 percent of people who receive them.

By more effectively predicting and accurately selecting which strains of influenza are most likely to cause severe illness in humans, the effectiveness of the vaccine could be improved upon.

One approach to selecting the influenza strains involves deep genetic sequencing of the influenza virus before and after the exposure to environmental pressures like anti-viral drugs. Finberg said that the research could help predict how the virus evolves to escape the defenses of the immune system.

The project, which is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, seeks to develop new technologies that will predict the natural evolution of viruses.