SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2016

Scientists take steps toward universal flu vaccine

Sanofi scientists researching influenza recently made an important advance in the effort to create a universal flu vaccine that would protect against multiple viral strains, according to a study published in Nature.

The team of researchers from pharmaceutical company Sanofi designed a new protein that fused a transporter protein naturally found in blood with the a surface protein from the flu virus. The hybrid proteins spontaneously formed tiny spheres. The researchers tested the new compound in ferrets and found the vaccine gave the animals immunity against multiple strains of flu that circulated between 1934 and 2007, BBC reports.

Scientists often use ferrets in flu research because they can be infected with human viruses and develop similar symptoms.

The vaccine features hemagglutinin spikes that are common in many flu strains, giving the immune system the ability to target multiple flu strains.

"We think this is a step down the path towards a universal vaccine," Gary Nabel, Sanofi's chief scientific advisor, said, according to BBC. "It's not a universal vaccine yet. There's lots of research in the early phases and this looks as good as anything out there."

The vaccine was designed to protect against H1 flu viruses like 2009 H1N1 swine flu. It would not protect against some strains, like the H7N9 avian flu in China.

While the vaccine may be able to get over issues of mismatching that can occur with the seasonal flu vaccine, the vaccine has yet to be tested in people and safety trials are a year away. There is also a risk the flu virus could evade the new vaccine, BBC reports.

"I think the important question to explore in the field now is... will the virus be able to escape by 'drift' like it does each year to our natural antibody response, or can it be 'pinned in' by the immune response induced by this new era of vaccines?" Wendy Barclay, a professor from Imperial College London, said, according to BBC.