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BSI response to paper on new approach to developing a universal flu vaccine

18 January 2018

A paper published today in Science has reported on a new approach to developing a vaccine against influenza. The researchers manufactured a mutant influenza virus that is susceptible to one of the body’s primary immune defense mechanisms and has generated induced robust immune responses in animal models. The paper reports that it could potentially form the base for a new universal influenza vaccine that could target all strains of the virus.  In response, the British Society for Immunology have released the following statement:

Professor Peter Openshaw, President of the British Society for Immunology, & Professor of Experimental Medicine, Imperial College London, said:

“Vaccines represent an extraordinary success story, saving millions of children from premature death and extending healthy living into old age. However, vaccines could always do with improvement. In particular, the current influenza vaccines have to be changed every year to keep up with the constantly evolving viruses. This game of ‘cat and mouse’ usually results in about 65% protection, but sometimes influenza mutates in unexpected directions. What we need is a universal flu vaccine that gives lasting protection against all current and future strains.

“This publication represents a step change in applying science to what is traditionally a rather empirical area of immunology. It’s not completely novel in that scientists have been taking out components of viruses that disabled the host immune response for several decades, simultaneously weakening the virus and strengthening the host immune responses.

“This collaborative tour de force between groups in North America and China scanned the whole viral genome to find mutations that can make the virus more sensitive to interferon produced by the host cells. They found residues clustered in unexpected regions of the genome and created a new ‘hypersensitive’ virus with eight mutations. This virus could grow with ease in interferon-deficient cells, but not in the presence of interferon.

“They went on to administer large doses of this disabled virus to ferrets and mice, showing that it was able to induce protective immune response not only against viruses with the same surface proteins (against which antibody is directed), but also against viruses recognised by cross reactive T-cells, suggesting that a vaccine developed in this way might have broad protective effects against diverse influenza viruses.

“This advanced approach combines state of the art virology with incisive immunological techniques, potentially leading to greatly improved vaccines in the future. However, there are many other promising approaches towards the universal influenza vaccine and many hurdles to be overcome moving from pre-clinical through to clinical testing and ultimately to incorporation into standard vaccine schedules.

“The authors are to be congratulated on taking such an ambitious and systematic approach to optimising a vaccine to get round the traditional road blocks. However, this is but the first stage in making a vaccine for use in man.”

The full article that this statement is in response to can be found at: Du et al. 2018 Genome-wide identification of interferon-sensitive mutations enables influenza vaccine design. Science 359 290–296 doi: 10.1126/science.aan8806