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Progress toward a universal flu vaccine

Stanford researchers have developed a technique to encourage the immune system to target a section of the flu virus that is conserved year to year.

Each year brings another flu vaccine, which may or may not provide excellent protection against the circulating strains of a virus. (It is, however, beneficial to be vaccinated.) It seems to be a frustrating impasse that leaves room for the wily influenza virus to out-evolve the hardworking human vaccine developers.

One reason for this ongoing struggle is our immune system's preference for one part of the influenza virus, a bit of the viral protein that my colleague Amy Adams calls the "ice cream" in a recent Stanford News article.

Each year, the flavor of ice cream changes. But the "cone" section of the influenza virus (which is thought to be particularly important for the virus to enter a cell) remains consistent.

Tricking the immune system into recognizing the cone, rather than the eye-catching blue raspberry swirl, or double chocolate peanut butter cup, could lead to a vaccine that persists from year to year. And one that is more effective than many current efforts. In fact, if researchers are able to convince the immune system to forego the ice cream and chomp on a precise bit of the cone, then they may have the ability to fine-tune vaccines for any number of infectious agents, including HIV.

But first, there's the not-small task of targeting the cone.

Stanford chemistry graduate student Payton Weidenbacher and biochemist Peter Kim, PhD, have now figured out how to do just that in lab animals.

The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Basically the pair found a neat way to block the ice cream-side of a viral protein and hide it from the immune system (no ice cream here!). Then they expose only the cone section of the viral protein, which the immune system attacks. A cone alone is better than nothing, the thought goes.

From the article:

Lab animals that receive this cleverly cloaked flu protein also show an immune response to other strains of the flu -- something that would only happen if they'd learned to recognize the consistent bits in the cone. Animals that received a normal vaccine didn't respond well to other flu strains.

The researchers said they need to refine the tactic's specificity, but they have high hopes.

"We think it could be very generalizable," said Kim. "It could be important for coming up with a universal flu vaccine that would protect against pandemic flu, as well as for HIV."

Photo by Patrick Fore

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