January 11, 2011

Universal flu vaccine is closer

3D digital rendering of generic influenza virus. Photo: CDC

The 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu strain has given a boost to the search for a universal flu vaccine.

This surprising source was discovered by scientists from Emory’s School of Medicine and the University of Chicago when several patients infected with the 2009 H1N1 strain developed antibodies that are protective against a variety of flu strains.

“Our data shows that infection with the 2009 pandemic influenza strain could induce broadly protective antibodies that are only rarely seen after seasonal flu infections or flu shots,” says first author Jens Wrammert, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine and at the Emory Vaccine Center.

The nine patients in the study, most in their 20s or 30s, were recruited through the Hope Clinic, the clinical division of the Emory Vaccine Center, with a range of disease severities. 

“Previously, this type of broadly protective, stalk-reactive antibody was thought to be very rare,” Wrammert says. “In contrast, in the patients we studied, these stalk-reactive antibodies were surprisingly abundant.”

"These findings show that these types of antibodies can be induced in humans, if the immune system has the right stimulation, and suggest that a pan-influenza vaccine might be feasible,” Wrammert adds.

Researchers says they could use the antibodies isolated from a group of patients who were infected with the 2009 H1N1 to design a vaccine that gives people long-lasting protection against a wide spectrum of flu viruses.

The research team’s next step is to examine the immune responses of people who were vaccinated against the 2009 H1N1 strain but did not get sick.

The research comes from collaboration between the laboratories of Rafi Ahmed, director of the Emory Vaccine Center, and Patrick Wilson at the University of Chicago. 

“The result is something like the Holy Grail for flu-vaccine research," says Wilson. "It demonstrates how to make a single vaccine that could potentially provide permanent immunity to all influenza. The surprise was that such a very different influenza strain, as opposed to the most common strains, could lead us to something so widely applicable."

The results were published in a January online issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. 

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