To prepare for holiday socializing, I always roll up my sleeve to get an annual flu shot. I would much rather share food and gifts than a virus with my friends and family. And I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time sick.
However, seasonal flu vaccines are not always effective. There are thousands of strains of influenza virus and each can mutate over the course of the flu season. Seasonal vaccines only protect against a few of the most likely strains. As a result, flu-associated deaths range from 3,000 to 49,000 Americans per flu season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Scientists have long sought a lifelong vaccine that would be effective against any variety of influenza, and they are now making significant progress towards this goal.
I recently spoke with Ian Wilson, PhD, a leading structural and computational biologist at the Scripps Research Institute, about his team’s universal flu vaccine research. He told me:
Our research has identified a good target for such a vaccine on a protein called hemagglutinin (HA) that is present on the surface of all influenza viruses. The HA protein has two major components: the head portion, which mutates and varies from strain to strain, and the stem, which is similar across most flu strains. We know that the HA stem is the virus’s most vulnerable spot, and provokes the greatest breadth of immune response. So a synthetic version of the stem was designed, called a mini-HA that mimicked the HA stem.
A key part of Wilson’s flu research took place at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where the scientists used a technique called x-ray crystallography to look at the atomic structure of the mini-HA at each stage of its development. I wrote a recent news article about their efforts.
Though this is important research, more work needs to be done. “We still need to perform human trials and also want to develop a vaccine that protects against all types of influenza that cause human pandemics,” Wilson said.
Jennifer Huber, PhD, is a science writer with extensive technical communications experience as an academic research scientist, freelance science journalist, and writing instructor.
Previously: Working to create a universal flu vaccine, Science Friday-style podcast explains work toward a universal flu vaccine and Experts and 8-year-olds agree: It’s worth getting a flu shot
Photo by Blake Patterson