Flu viruses are constantly mutating and every year the seasonal flu shot is updated to keep up with the viruses that are making people sick. Readers interested in the prospect of a â€œuniversal flu vaccineâ€ may have noticed some experimental progress on that theme this week.
The reports build on findings some years ago fromÂ Emory Vaccine Center researchers led by Rafi Ahmed. Ahmedâ€™s team had showed that people infected by the 2009 H1N1 flu strain developed broadly protective antibodies, and separately, so did volunteers immunized against the H5N1 avian flu virus.
Some background: the head region of the flu virusâ€™s mushroom-like hemagglutinin protein is more variable, and more exposed to the immune system, while the stem/stalk region is less variable.
The underlying idea is: if someoneâ€™s immune system is exposed to flu viruses different enough than what it has seen before (like in the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and the H5N1 study), the antibodies to the stem region become more important and more prominent.
The NIAID team fused the flu hemagglutinin to ferritin, a platform for further protein engineering.
This week, what the researchers from NIAID (Nature Medicine) and Scripps/J&J (Science) showed is that experimental vaccines made from the stem region only can be broadly protective in several animal models. This required some protein engineering and reconstruction because chopping off the head of the hemagglutinin protein makes it fall apart.
Emory Vaccine Centerâ€™s Walter Orenstein, in comments for Genetic Experts News Service, wrote:
These are animal studies, so we are some way off for development and testing of a vaccine in humans.Â The technique is promising and a step in the right direction. Read more
Vaccine researchers have developed a strategy aimed at generating broadly cross-reactive antibodies against the influenza virus: embrace the unfamiliar.
In recent years, researchers interested in a “universal flu vaccine” identified a region of the viral hemagglutinin protein called the stem or stalk, which doesn’t mutate and change as much as other regions and could be the basis for a vaccine that is protective against a variety of flu strains.
In an Emory Vaccine Center study, human volunteers immunized against the avian flu virus H5N1 readily developed antibodies against the stem region of the viral hemagglutinin protein. In contrast, those immunized with standard seasonal trivalent vaccines did not, instead developing most of their antibodies against the more variable head region. H5N1, regarded as a potential pandemic strain, is not currently circulating in the United States and the volunteers had not been exposed to it before.
The results were published Monday, August 25 inÂ PNAS.
The key to having volunteers’ bodies produce antibodies against the stem region seemed to be their immune systems’ unfamiliarity with the H5N1 type of virus, says lead author Ali Ellebedy, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.
Note: for a counterpoint, check out this 2013 Science Translational Medicine paper on how vaccination that induces anti-stem antibodies contributes toÂ enhanced respiratory disease in pigs.
Emory influenza researchers Richard Compans, Anice Lowen and John Steel are co-signers of a statement announcing the end of a self-imposed moratorium on H5N1 avian flu research.
Last year, an international group of researchers called for the moratorium after public concern over studies of H5N1 transmissibility in ferrets, a model for spread of infection between humans. The group of researchers has now recommended ending the moratorium, citing safeguards and safety review procedures put in place by the National Institutes of Health and authorities in other countries. From the letter published today in Science and Nature:
In January 2012, influenza virus researchers from around the world announced a voluntary pause of 60 days on any research involving highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 viruses leading to the generation of viruses that are more transmissible in mammals. We declared a pause to this important research to provide time to explain the public-health benefits cheap oakley of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimize possible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies (for example on biosafety, biosecurity, oversight, and communication) regarding these experiments.
…Thus, acknowledging that the aims of the voluntary moratorium have been met in some countries and are close to being met in others, we declare an end to the voluntary moratorium on avian flu transmission studies.
Dan Vergano has a more extensive story in USA Today.
Compans is professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine and scientific director of Emory’s Influenza Pathogenesis and Immunology Research Center. Lowen and Steel are assistant professors of microbiology and immunology at Emory and IPIRC investigators.
The scientists in the lab of Richard Compans, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory, are hard at work, imagining the unimaginable: A time when patients can self-administer flu vaccines. A time when vaccination does not require exposure to inactive viruses. A time when a universal vaccine could protect from all varieties of influenza: swine, avian, seasonal and strains still emerging.
Richard Compans, PhD (right), with colleague Mark Prausnitz, PhD, from Georgia Tech
But it’s not just hope that motivates them as they work. Emory’s scientists are fighting the clock against another possible future: a time of pandemic and uncontrollable virus mutation. The recent emergence of H1N1 and H5N1, known colloquially as swine flu and avian flu, have added an even greater sense of urgency to their task.
“The H5N1â€”the virus derived from avian speciesâ€”has a 60 percent mortality,” says Emory microbiologist Sang-Moo Kang, PhD. Yet that strain of influenza hasn’t resulted in many human deaths, because, so far, avian flu spreads only to humans who are in contact with infected birds.