One Shot Wonder? Progress on a Universal Flu Vaccine

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A universal flu vaccine may be on its way, thanks to a team of scientists in Britain and Switzerland and one anonymous patient who was immune to both of the main types of influenza A virus, one of the more common classes of flu bugs that circulate each year. It turns out that the patient made an antibody called F16, that neutralized influenza A virus in animal testing.

The discovery could make the yearly flu shots obsolete. One reason we have to re-introduce our immune systems to the flu virus each year, rather than rely on the occasional booster as we do with many other infectious diseases, is because circulating flu strains vary significantly each year. That means we have to build different antibodies in response to each strain — or use the shortcut of an inoculation. F16, however, appears to be a remarkably versatile antibody, able to fend off an impressive array of influenza viruses so that if it were included in a vaccine, it might provide nearly universal protection , year after year, against whatever the flu bugs would throw at us. As  Reuters reported:

This team developed a method using X-ray crystallography to test very large numbers of human plasma cells, to increase their odds of finding an antibody even if it was extremely rare.

When they identified FI6, they injected it into mice and ferrets and found that it protected the animals against infection by either a Group 1 or Group 2 influenza A virus.

Currently, drug makers scramble to develop a new vaccination in advance of flu outbreaks each year. “As we saw with the 2009 pandemic, a comparatively mild strain of influenza can place a significant burden on emergency services. Having a universal treatment which can be given in emergency circumstances would be an invaluable asset,” John Skehel of Britain’s National Institute for Medical Research, who worked on the study, told Reuters.

As Healthland reported earlier this year, an unrelated team of researchers from Columbia University have discovered a group of five antibodies that are protective against a number of flu strains as well. These scientists culled the resistance from survivors of  pandemic H1N1 strain infection, who may have developed more sophisticated immunity as a result of withstanding the more widespread disease:

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.

The American research may lead to the development of a two-part universal inoculation that is currently in the works as part of a U.S. National Institutes of Health project. And while a universal flu vaccine might seem like more of a convenience than a necessity, aside from enormous cost saving, the shot could prevent up to 49,000 yearly deaths in the U.S. per year, many among people who aren’t properly inoculated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) records.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.