Study suggests artificially mutating flu strains may lead to better vaccines

Scientists say initiating flu-strain evolution will lead to better vaccines.
Scientists say initiating flu-strain evolution will lead to better vaccines. | Contributed photo

Scientists believe the best way to strengthen flu vaccines is to evolve the influenza virus pre-emptively in the safety of their labs.

The researchers recently published their research findings. They said the immunity-boosting techniques they need may be best discovered by manipulating the virus themselves. This will enable health professionals to vaccinate patients against potential future viral strains, not just the strains currently spreading.

In the time it takes scientists to manufacture the annual amount of 350 million doses of flu vaccines needed in the U.S., it is highly likely that the flu will already have evolved into a strain too strong for the vaccine to fight. Knowing which vaccines to create for which strains before the strains even surface would hugely impact the health community.

The team of researchers created a model of how the human immune system responds to vaccinations and infections. By implementing computer software that creates a person’s “antibody landscape,” scientists can visualize a kind of 3-D immune landscape showing mountains that depict immune response and valleys that illustrate immune weaknesses. This will assist scientists in accurately assessing the evolved viral strain.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials will meet with researchers in February to choose the first strain they want to evolve. This choice will be made upon analyzing other studies and their evidence of immune responses. Unfortunately, WHO officials may not outmaneuver the virus’s evolution, however.

"It's a real challenge: The WHO selects a strain of flu using the best information available, but is faced with the possibility that the virus will evolve before the flu season," Dr. Judy Fonville, one of the lead authors of the study and a member of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Modelling, Evolution and Control of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Cambridge, said. "Even if it does, though, it's worth remembering that the flu vaccine still offers much greater protection than having no jab. We're looking for ways to make an important vaccine even more effective."

The University of Cambridge and fellow researchers have published their study in the journal Science.

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