After limited progress against the dreaded winter flu over the past 60 years, researchers have announced two potentially major vaccination breakthroughs.
Researchers say they have developed a new, more potent flu vaccine that could be produced up to five months more quickly than the current version.
In the case of an influenza pandemic, the new vaccine could potentially be deployed within just a month, improving the chances of stopping any outbreak cold.
Scientists say they also have developed a new way to give the flu vaccination — by dissolvable tablet, instead of the cringe-inducing, old-fashioned shot.
Dr. Marie Savard, a doctor of internal medicine, joined "Good Morning America" today to discuss the new flu vaccine, "FluBlok."
For 60 years, flu vaccine has been produced through a painstaking and time-consuming process involving hen eggs. The eggs must be eight to 10 days old, and the virus takes five to six months to develop in the egg. Once developed, the virus is analyzed and becomes the basis for that year's flu vaccine. The problem, experts say, is that in the time it takes to produce the vaccine, the flu virus may have mutated, making the vaccine less effective.
Now doctors are hoping that a new protein grown in caterpillars will offer a stronger, faster and more efficient alternative.
"The good news is there is this genetically engineered protein. You develop the protein in a caterpillar, [with] caterpillar cells and you can make tremendous amounts, it's available in a month's period of time," explains Dr. Savard. That's up to five months faster than the current method.
The FDA has just awarded a license for the study of the caterpillar method to the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Center in California and 26 other centers nationwide.
"Maybe by fall we'll have a vaccine that will be quickly available. And maybe give better immune response, especially for the elderly — that's the key," says Dr. Savard.
Many people shudder at the thought of putting anything that's genetically engineered inside their body. Dr. Savard points out, however, that Americans already use many genetically modified products.
"Insulin since 1982, the Human Growth Hormone and Hepatitis B, which of course all of our kids are getting," she says, listing some of the modified products already in use.
"We know that by controlling that protein in the caterpillar, you can actually have fewer side effects than an attenuated virus," Dr. Savard says.
As for the flu vaccine's safety? "We have models for genetically engineered proteins that are safe, effective and a better alternative to the virus process we use now," says Dr. Savard, adding that continued monitoring is nonetheless necessary.
Every year, new strands of the flu inspire new fear and diminish faith that the current vaccine will work. Fortunately, scientists say that with a little tweaking, they can now adjust the vaccine to better take on resistant flu strands.
"As long as there's advanced notice, that can take weeks or longer, they can adjust that protein. Every year we need to get a new vaccine because there's minor changes on the surface of the virus," says Dr. Savard.
Even though we're halfway through winter, Dr. Savard warns that a flu outbreak remains possible through May. Since the vaccine takes two weeks to work, she urges people to go out and get it.
A new delivery system, involving a dissolving tablet instead of the usual shot, is also showing promise in lab tests.
"In mice there's been a great immune response, but that's a long way," says Dr. Savard.
For now, it's still the needle, but doctors and patient alike are hopeful for a future free of shots.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.