It has been the Holy Grail of influenza research -- how to create just one vaccine that will protect against the hundreds of different flu strains that exist every year. With a new scientific discovery, researchers are now a major step closer to that goal.
"We have identified a common Achilles heel of all influenza viruses and this really allows us then to work on a universal vaccine that will get us lifelong immunity," said Dr. Wayne Marasco, a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
In a study in the journal ofNature Structural & Molecular Biology, researchers say they have identified antibodies that inactivate the influenza virus before it has the chance to change itself. Drugs derived from the antibodies could both prevent and treat seasonal flu and have the potential to lead to a flu vaccine, putting an end to once-a-year shots and the need to reformulate vaccines each year, or match the changing flu strains in circulation.
"Instead of having vaccines every year and developing immunity for that winter season, we now have the potential and recognize we have the potential to actually have lifelong immunity if we did this correctly," Marasco said.
In theory, a universal vaccine could mean better protection against the seasonal flu, which sickens millions of Americans each year and kills about 36,000. It could provide protection against the much-feared bird flu and a global influenza pandemic.
This discovery, finding the common target on flu strains, was made using mice infected with human influenza.
"It was unexpected and it was one of those eureka moments where the science ... the achievement had superseded our expectations," Marasco said.
Researchers are moving full speed ahead to get a newly designed vaccine tested in people within the next three years. Marasco says that drugs will likely reach the clinical trial stage in 2010 or 2011.
The need for a universal flu vaccine is real, with the Centers for Disease Control now saying that this flu season, which had been off to a slow start, is rapidly getting worse.
In just one week, the number of states reporting widespread flu activity has jumped from 16 to 24. And some of those getting sick are contracting a flu strain that is not covered in this year's vaccine formula.
"The current vaccines are inadequate for multiple reasons," said Dr. Daniel Sexton, professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center. "They don't cover all the viruses that exist in nature, and the immunity that they produce is not adequate in many cases. A universal vaccine would be an enormous advance and it could save lives that are currently being lost today."
In Colorado, four children have died from complications from the flu in just the past few weeks, leaving health officials there stunned.
"All so tragic, in that a previously healthy child should so quickly be lost from this world from something which most of us think is not a big deal. Flu -- but it's a big deal," said Dr. Ken Gershman, director of Colorado Health Department.
No one knows when this flu season will peak, but researchers say that, until a better vaccine is developed, the health of thousands is at risk
"There are many people who cannot respond to vaccines ... very young, the elderly, the cancer patient, the patient with other medical illnesses that do not respond well to vaccination," Marasco said. "For these individuals ... immediately, this becomes a new preventative and treatment strategy that may save thousands of lives."