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Universal flu vaccine a big step closer – but it will only help half of us

A huge taskforce of Australian research institutions believe they have taken major steps towards developing a universal flu vaccine that could last for up to 10 years.

They have found a part of the flu virus that does not change year-to-year. Mice given the vaccine are immune to the flu.

But their solution, published in a study today, would produce a strange type of vaccine: one that lets people still get sick, and that does not work for about half the population.

Most vaccines stop a virus infecting you. This vaccine kills viruses once you are infected.

“It’s not like antibodies – you can still get a mild form of the disease. But it could be a bit of a sniffle, rather than being bedbound for two weeks,” says Peter Doherty Institute Professor Katherine Kedzierska, the study’s senior author.

And a quirk in our DNA means it would only work for roughly half the world’s population.

A one-shot vaccine that does not need annual updates is the Holy Grail for influenza researchers. It would prevent disastrous flu seasons like 2017’s, when an ineffective vaccine led to a record number of infections and almost 4000 confirmed deaths.

More importantly, a universal vaccine would help prevent the spread of lethal pandemic strains such as the Spanish flu, which killed between 50 and 100 million people in 1918.

Flu viruses pose a big problem because of their ability to mutate every year, becoming just different enough for our immune system to let them through.

But a virus cannot change all its genes. Some are ancient and integral to its function.

Find them, and you could theoretically build a vaccine that protects against every type of flu.

In work published today in Nature Immunology, a team of 37 researchers from more than 20 institutions reveal that they’ve found some of those ancient, common genes.

They used those genes to build a vaccine that would allow the immune system to spot and kill all types of flu.

In mice, the vaccine seems to ward off new infections.

“We think this is a big step forward in designing a universal influenza vaccine,” says Marios Koutsakos, the study’s lead author.

The next task: find more ancient genes that are common across all types of flu. With a broader range of target genes, the team could build a vaccine that worked for all humans.

“This work is still in the early stages. But having identified those cross-reactive T cells, we think we’re on a good path to start making a universal T cell vaccine. But we still have a long way to go.”

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