Searching For A Universal Vaccine For Influenza

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May 23, 2018 - 6:45am

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are looking for a universal vaccine for the influenza virus. They are attempting to combine ancestral genes from other major strains of influenza with the hope of protecting the young and old alike. In the United States, 30,000 people die annually from the influenza virus. Brandon McDermott of NET News spoke with UNL virologist Eric Weaver about the research and where things currently stand. 

Brandon McDermott, NET News: You're focusing on finding a universal vaccine for influenza. The current flu vaccine programs have been shown to be less than 60 percent effective when they're successfully matched to the currently circulating strain. Do the current vaccines healed enough good results to be considered successful?

Eric Weaver, Virologist from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Yes, in my mind the current influenza vaccine is successful. I think it's effective, we've seen some improvements in it. I don't think I know anyone that likes to go get a vaccine shot every year. So, it would be nice if we could make one that lasted longer than a year.

McDermott: Over the past 70 years we've seen some pretty tough strains but nothing close to the one 1918 flu pandemic is the ticking time bomb so to speak -- the next big pandemic -- and if so how important your research when thinking about that?

Weaver: I can say that there will be another pandemic, whether it causes disease and mortality at the same rate as the 1918 one, I don't know. I can stay fairly confidently that there will be another pandemic and so one thing that's kind of overlooked by people and forgotten about was that 2009 swine flu pandemic it kind of arose out of Mexico and showed up in Texas and California and then went around (the world) and infected 24 percent of the global population. So, even with this surveillance that was on that particular strain of flu, even with our vaccine preparedness and everything – it still spread around the world and we could not intervene and prevent that.

McDermott: What are some of the different approaches that you're trying in searching for this universal vaccine?

Weaver: One of the main approaches that we're taking is that we're trying to analyze the evolution of influenza and recreate an ancestor that the influenza virus is evolved from. The idea is that if we can create an ancestor influenza and use that to make a vaccine, then we may be able to produce protective responses against all viruses that evolve from it. So that's different from the current flu vaccine that uses individual viral proteins as a vaccine component. So, it's extremely strain specific, it doesn't induce durable, long-lasting – meaning more than four or five months’ – worth of immunity. Again, it's very strain specific, so when the virus mutates – which it it's doing constantly, or when it has a major shift by resorting with another animal influenza virus – the vaccine that we have cannot account for that and it can't provide any real protective immunity to it. So, our vaccine is trying to produce cross protective immune responses against all the different strains that we know of to date.

McDermott: Without insurance, current flu vaccines cost Americans between about $35 and $70. What would a universal vaccine cost someone trying to get the vaccine?

Weaver: I can say from our estimates on scaling up from our small animal models that we can effectively create human equivalent vaccine doses that would provide high levels of immunity against broad divergence strains influenza in the dollar range, easily. What we've found was that in the laboratory and small scale, we can produce thousands of vaccine dose equivalents. So, if we were to scale this up to an industrial size manufacturing capacity, I would expect that we could on par or below what the current vaccine annual flu cost – as far as production goes – we could make this vaccine that way.

McDermott: How long do you expect to conduct this study before research is completed?

Weaver: So, one of the things that we're trying to do is establish a foundation of immunity against all the different types of influenza that we know of that infect humans. But, that's not going to stop influenza from evolving. I don't ever see us finding the magic bullet that will it eliminate influenza from the world, I am very certain we'll be studying influenza vaccine development for years, decades, centuries.

McDermott: At what point would you consider this successful?

Weaver: I would consider this vaccine successful when it has achieved FDA approval and shown the safety and efficacy when it reduces a significant number of pediatric deaths and reduces the number of influenza associated illness in the elderly. More than 30,000 elderly die every year. It would be nice to see that reduced significantly and just overall burden. As soon as we see a significant impact in improvement over current vaccine technology.

McDermott: Dr. Eric Weaver, thanks again for joining me.

Weaver: Thank you for having me, Brandon.



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