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23 Sep, 2013 09:32

Through with flu? Universal influenza vaccine on its way

Through with flu? Universal influenza vaccine on its way

Scientists have reached a breakthrough in their pursuit of a universal vaccine for flu, which includes even future deadly strains. The answer lay within the human body itself, after eluding specialists for decades.

The foundations for a possible revolutionary flu vaccine were discovered as part of a UK study following the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

Scientists monitored the health condition of over 300 students and staff at the Imperial College London throughout the pandemic. What they found, was a naturally occurring immune response in the form of the CD8T cells, whose function it is to battle viruses.

The Sunday results were published in the journal Nature Medicine, detailing how those who avoided being bed-ridden by the flu had a stronger presence of CD8T cells in their blood at the start of the pandemic. 

AFP Photo / Ronaldo Schemidt

The Imperial College London’s Professor at the Heart and Lung Institute, Ajit Lalvani, who led the study, expanded on the crucial difference between existing methods of prevention and the so-called ‘Holy Grail’ of vaccines he believes is on the way:

“The immune system produces these CD8 T cells in response to usual seasonal flu… Unlike antibodies, they target the core of the virus, which doesn’t change, even in new pandemic strains. The 2009 pandemic provided a unique natural experiment to test whether T cells could recognize, and protect us against, new strains that we haven’t encountered before and to which we lack antibodies,” Lalvani  said, cited by The Independent.

The trouble with existing vaccines is that the antibodies they dispatch to fight viral infection only target the surface characteristics of the infection, which are prone to adapting and mutating. The result is newer, more devious strains and the need to constantly upgrade the vaccine.

According to the professor, “new strains of flu are continuously emerging, some of which are deadly, and so the Holy Grail is to create a universal vaccine that would be effective against all strains of flu.”

The health world is already heralding the development as the next step in protecting the human population from deadly future strains of flu, a disease which already kills between 250,000 and half a million people annually, according to the World Health Organization. The 2009 swine flu epidemic affected millions worldwide. Flu pandemics have had a historical trend of being devastating every time, with the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 causing tens of millions of deaths across the globe. 

AFP Photo / Michele Crosera

News of the breakthrough comes just as the world braces itself for another possible outbreak – the new bird flu strain, H7N9, which made the transition from birds to humans in February of this year, killing a fifth of the people it infected in its native China.

However, Professor Lalvani forecasts a bright future: “We already know how to stimulate the immune system to make CD8 T cells by vaccination…Now that we know these T cells may protect, we can design a vaccine to prevent people getting symptoms and transmitting infection to others. This could curb seasonal flu annually and protect people against future pandemics.”