Moving flu vaccine research forward

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 H5N1—the virus derived from avian species—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.

But researchers anticipate that H5N1 might mutate and gain the ability to spread through human-to-human contact. Kang says that would be a devastating game changer. “Once it has come out with some mutation and obtained the capability to transmit among humans, it will be a huge issue. You can imagine how serious it might be,” Kang says.

For eight years, Kang has been working on vaccines at Emory, with steady progress. He and his colleagues have pioneered virus-like particles (VLPs), empty particle shells that mimic the shape of viruses and stimulate the body’s immune system to fight back against the perceived threat.

Kang, along with Martin D’Souza at Mercer University, was the recipient of a Georgia Research Alliance 2009 Collaboration Planning Grant to develop oral nano-encapsulated flu vaccines.

Read more in Emory Medicine magazine.

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