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January 13, 2011

Scientists Close In on Universal Flu Vaccine

by Art Chimes

People who recover from swine flu seem to have strengthened immunity against other flu strains

People who recover from swine flu could be better protected against other strains of flu and doctors hope to use that information to develop a universal flu vaccine.

Tens of millions of people got sick with the 2009 flu strain, then recovered. Now researchers have identified antibodies in their blood that could protect them from future flu outbreaks.

Each influenza outbreak is the product of a unique flu virus, which in turn requires a unique vaccine.

Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago and colleagues conducted laboratory tests that indicate swine flu patients produce antibodies that defend against a wide variety of flu strains, not just the single strain that current vaccines target.

"We found that these antibodies cross-reacted to all of the common H1N1 strains [over the past 10 years]," says Wilson. "They also were reactive with the 1918 pandemic and to one of the deadly H5 strains. And so, it was a pretty broad spectrum of reactivity."

That's because the antibodies produced in response to the H1N1 swine flu target parts of the virus that are common to all flu varieties. Identifying those parts has been elusive until now.

"The biggest impact of the work is just proof of principle that this can really happen, we can really target these in a preferential way with a vaccine."

If all goes well, Patrick Wilson predicts a universal flu vaccine could be on the market in five to 10 years. His research paper was published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.