One Stop Flu Shot: Hope for a Universal Influenza Vaccine

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Perhaps there’s a silver lining to last year’s H1N1 pandemic flu outbreak: those who were infected and survived appear to have developed ‘super flu’ antibodies that may help researchers develop an influenza inoculation that could be effective for a lifetime.

One reason health officials recommend a yearly flu shot, rather than an occasional booster as we do with many other infectious diseases such as measles, pertussis, or hepatitis, is because circulating flu strains vary significantly each year, requiring us to build new and different antibodies to protect ourselves against infection. (More on Bird Flu Pops Up Again in Hong Kong. Is a Pandemic on Its Way?)

But as Reuters reported:

[P]eople who were infected in the H1N1 pandemic developed an unusual immune response, making antibodies that could protect them from all the seasonal H1N1 flu strains from the last decade, the deadly “Spanish flu” strain from 1918 and even a strain of the H5N1 avian flu.

“It says that a universal influenza vaccine is really possible,” said Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago, who worked on the paper published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

When Wilson and his team — which included researchers from Columbia University, Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — tested 86 antibodies they’d been able to cultivate from nine H1N1 patients and found that 5 of the antibodies were effective against several strains of flu virus, including all of the H1N1 strains that have appeared over the past decade. In additional tests, some of those same 5 antibodies protected mice from lethal doses of the 2009 H1N1 influenza or other common lab strains of flu virus. (More on Post-H1N1, Why You Still Need to Worry About Flu)

Researchers theorize that the H1N1 virus was so different in structure than any other virus to which sufferers had been exposed, that their antibodies developed to attack the only part of the virus that it recognized — what’s known as the “stalk” — a common and often conserved element in the genetic makeup of influenza viruses. By attacking that common area, the antibodies to H1N1 provided broader, and more universal protection against a range of viruses.

In fact, a research team at NIH is using that premise to develop the first half of a two-step flu vaccination that they hope will be more effective. Why so much focus on the yearly bug? Creating a more universal and long-term influenza shot could prevent up to 49,000 yearly deaths in the U.S. per year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) records.

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