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March 13, 2013

Australian Team Edges Closer to Universal Flu Vaccine

by Phil Mercer

Researchers in Australia say they have made a breakthrough in the hunt for a universal flu vaccine, by finding a way to better protect against new strains of the virus. Around the world, annual seasonal influenza epidemics cause hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and many more bouts of serious illness. 

The “hit men of the immune system”, known as T-cells, could be the key to a universal flu vaccine, according to Australian scientists.

Their research involving scientists at the University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Netherlands focuses on how the influenza virus normally evades these white blood cells that protect the body from infection.  They hope that understanding how the virus evades T-cells will lead to the creation of a vaccine that recognizes distinct virus strains.

Such vaccines could provide universal immunity against influenza strains, leading to longer lasting and broader protection against seasonal and pandemic outbreaks.

Stephen Turner, a professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne, hopes the research will complement existing flu treatments. “The current vaccine that we have induces a sort of immunity that the virus can evade very easily through mutating itself and changing the targets.”

Current flu vaccines cause the body to produce antibodies for specific flu strains.

T-cells scan the surface of other cells to look for any hint of infection. However, they are usually ineffective at combating the influenza virus.

Turner says that researchers hope that new vaccines that target T-cells could provide universal immunity against influenza, instead of just a few specific strains.

“The problem with it is that the virus can change," Turner stated. "So, what we are looking at here is value-adding to the current vaccine such that we can generate not just the antibody immunity but also this more broadly protected T-Cell immunity in the event that the virus does change without us, sort of, being able to predict it.”

Clinical trials could start within five years.  Researchers hope their work into T-cell immunity will also improve their understanding of viral infections such as HIV, Hepatitis C and cancerous tumors.

Influenza is an acute respiratory disease.  Seasonal epidemics can result in up to five million cases of severe illness around the world each year and as many as 500,000 deaths.  Researchers say that a new flu virus can spread across more than 70 countries in just eight weeks.