Local researchers work to create a universal flu vaccine

June 8, 2009 8:42:12 PM PDT
As the H1N1 swine flu virus continues to spread, pharmaceutical companies are busying trying to make a vaccine. But other researchers are hoping to take things a step farther and make a universal flu vaccine to prevent flu strains circulating now and in the future. Each year, thousands of Americans roll up their sleeves to get a flu shot. Doctors say it's one of the best ways to prevent getting sick from the seasonal flu, but theyearly vaccine has flaws.

First, a new batch has to be made each year because the virus changes. Scientists have to guess which strain to put in the vaccine and they're not always right.

It also takes months to make and when a new virus such as the H1N1 strain hits, thousands of people can get sick while waiting for a vaccine.

"Viruses can come up at anytime from anywhere,"said Dr. Hildegund Ertl, a viral immunologist at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. So scientists there are trying to make a universal flu vaccine.

"So the idea would be to make a vaccine that protects against all or most influenza strains and people get vaccinated once every 10 years or maybe once a lifetime," Dr. Ertl said.

Sheis leading the research and said a universal flu vaccine will eliminate the need to scamble to make a new vaccine each yea and it will prevent flu pandemics. She said with the recent swine flu outbreak, so far we've been lucky. The virus hit towards the end of the season and in most cases appears to be mild. But if the virus had been more deadly like the avian flu, things could've been much worse.

"What could happen is that in the country many people would get sick, a lot of them would die, our infrastructure would be somewhat disrupted," she said.

And for developing countries, it could be devastating.

So instead of targeting part of the virus that changes to make a vaccine, like what's done now, Wistar researchers are focusing on a more stable portion of the virus to create a vaccine that will work even as the virus mutates. Their work is funded by a four-million dollar state grant.

Their method has been proven to work in mice and they've won a patent. But Dr. Ertl cautions it'll be at least five years before the vaccine can be proven safe and effective for humans.

Merle Melincoff is director of business development at Wistar. She said they're not alone in the quest to find a universal vaccine but they welcome the competition for the greater good.

"We don't know what's going to be the best approach," Melincoff said, adding, "It's likely there will be more than one approach."

Critics argue we don't know if it'll work at all. Dr. Ertl is optimistic and said the H1N1 virus serves as a reminder we need a better way to fight the flu and prevent flu pandemics.

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