As a brutal flu season continues to ravage the country, health experts are pleading with residents to get the yearly flu shot to give them at least some protection from a virus that can kill thousands of people each year.
The problem is - and has always been - that the flu vaccine doesn’t always work. In Australia, for this year’s flu, the effectiveness of the vaccine may only have been 10 percent. But now, researchers based at Georgia State University say they have discovered a way to create a vaccine that protects against all kinds of flu - and gives you that protection for years.
The research, led by Dr. Lei Deng and co-authored with eight other researchers from Georgia State, Georgia Tech and Emory University, was published in the journal Nature Communications and funded with a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent deaths from influenza virus, but the virus changes very fast and you have to receive a new vaccination each year,” said Dr. Bao-Zhong Wang, associate professor in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State, in a university release.
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“We’re trying to develop a new vaccine approach that eliminates the need for vaccination every year. We’re developing a universal influenza vaccine. You wouldn’t need to change the vaccine type every year because it’s universal and can protect against any influenza virus.
Here’s how it works:
Flu viruses have protein “heads” that attack to receptors in the body and make you feel sick, the researchers said. Vaccines work by training the body to activate its defenses when this head is spotted. The problem is the head changes all the time - mutating and morphing and evolving.
That’s why you have to get a new flu shot every year, and even then, sometimes the shot is not effective against the type of flu that actually winds up going around.
“Seasonal flu vaccines must be updated each year to match the influenza viruses that are predicted to be most common during the upcoming flu season, but protection doesn’t always meet expectations or new viruses emerge and manufacturers incorrectly guess which viruses will end up spreading,” the researchers said in the release.
The scientists at Georgia State took a different strategy. Instead of focusing on the head, they looked at the underling “stalk” - which doesn’t mutate as easily. That means a vaccine that targets that stalk can protect against all kinds of flu viruses, and wouldn’t have to be updated every year.
Researchers tested the shot on mice by injecting them twice and then exposing them to four types of flu virus. The vaccine provided “universal, complete protection” against deadly symptoms and “dramatically” reduced the load of virus as well, the scientists say.
The next step is to test the vaccine on ferrets, which researchers say have similar respiratory systems to humans.
Outside researchers like Charles Chiu, an associate professor at UC San Francisco, think the vaccine is promising.
"I don’t think it’s crazy to think that a universal vaccine is possible," he told public radio station KPCC. "There are several manufacturers that are working on potential candidate vaccines. And I think it is certainly something that we may be able to see in the next five to ten years."