January 28, 2011

U of C flu research may lead to a one-time vaccine

Yearly flu shots could someday be a thing of the past, according to researchers from the University of Chicago and Emory University. Scientists have identified five antibodies that can potentially be effective against future flu viruses, following a study of the 2009 H1N1 virus.

The studies, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, found that the antibodies neutralized all flu strains from the past 10 years, including the Spanish and Avian flu.

“These type of antibodies occurred so frequently, it was quite compelling,” said University researcher Dr. Patrick Wilson.

While seasonal flu mainly targets the elderly and the young, the H1N1 attacked young and healthy people, said Emory University researcher Dr. Jens Wrammert. It was this anomaly that prompted the study after the pandemic first broke out.

What the researchers found was that, unlike other antibodies that bind to the head of the hemaggluttinin protein (HA), the five new antibodies from the H1N1 virus bind to the stalk of the HA protein. Since the stalk does not mutate like the head, flu vaccines would not require yearly updating.

Stalk-binding antibodies have always been in the body, but they were thought to be very rare. The H1N1 virus was unique in promoting the production of stalk-binding antibodies in the body. Because virus stalks don’t tend to mutate, some of the stalk-binding antibodies can be used to protect against many flu viruses, the doctors found.

The study continues with people who received the H1N1 flu shot, and a drug manufacturing company is currently conducting its own tests regarding these antibodies.

“The main impact here is the promise it holds…to produce a vaccine that gives broader protection,” Wrammert said.