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Researchers Closer to Creating a Universal Flu Vaccine

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By Collin Myers, Technical Writer/Marketing Assistant

It’s that time of year again – the heart of winter, forecasts promising snow and ice, polar vortexes, and…flu season! So far, 2014 is off to a rough start for this Technical Writer – despite getting a flu shot back in the fall, I’ve been battling a weird cold/flu hybrid since New Year’s Eve, and haven’t felt 100% since last year. After five wretched days of blowing my nose, sneezing, and feeling aches and chills all over my body, I finally went in to see my doctor, who administered a test for strep throat, which came back negative. “The problem,??? my doctor said, “is that you’re incurable.???

Every year, as winter approaches, it seems that there are always outbreaks of influenza taking a toll on the population in various parts of the US and neighboring countries. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that flu-related illnesses kill between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans annually. So far this year, Canada has experienced a surge of fatal cases involving H1N1, while in Dallas and Denton Counties in Texas, there have already been 19 reported flu-related deaths. The predominant flu strain being treated by physicians in these counties is also H1N1, which was included in many vaccines provided to people in that region.

In the wake of the Swine Flu’s recent regional comeback, researchers from Stanford University are attempting to make large strides toward the creation of a universal flu vaccine which could provide more comprehensive protection against multiple strains of the virus. Spearheaded by James R. Swartz, the Stanford team’s approach involves a key protein found on the surface of the flu virus known as Hemagglutinin (HA). Structurally, Hemagglutinin looks similar to a mushroom, with a head and stem. Current available vaccines target the head of HA proteins, alerting our immune systems to create antibodies that can fight infections. Swartz and his team are attempting to alter the status quo by creating a vaccine that targets the stem of HA proteins. While the head of the protein may change from year to year, Swartz and his team are counting on the fact that the stems remain the same year after year, regardless of the virus strain.

In theory, this type of vaccine should offer more broad protection against multiple strains of the virus, and hopefully increase the likelihood of creating universal protection. However, this method is still in its early stages of experimentation, and has yet to be tested on patients. Swartz and his team have started by testing a strain of the H1N1 virus that terrorized the US in 2009. Using a process known as Cell Free Protein Synthesis (CFPS), the Stanford team subtracted the DNA coding for the head of the virus, editing the DNA strand to only include code for creating a viral stem. After many labs have spent years and years of trying to produce a soluble viral stem protein that could serve as a useful antigen, Swartz and his team successfully accomplished this feat, meaning that they were able to help create an antigen that could be made into a liquid (to be eventually used for vaccine injections).

The next step for Swartz and his team is to attach their stem protein to a virus- like particle. The research has not yet produced a definite solution to creating a universal flu vaccine; there will be multitudes of safety tests to follow, and eventually larger scale human trials to test the potential vaccine’s efficacy. But Swartz and his team, using this new game-changing approach, have made a major breakthrough that has helped up the ante. If there was ever a human virus long overdue to be countered by an effective vaccine, it has to be influenza – recent CDC estimates show that the global death toll from flu-related illnesses is somewhere in the range of 250,000 to 500,000 persons each year. 

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