Some vaccinations, such as the vaccine that protects against varicella, are a one shot deal. Others, such as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, are less convenient, requiring a second so-called ‘booster shot’ to reach maximum effectiveness. But in this regard, the yearly and ever-changing vaccine for influenza (flu) is probably the least convenient of all.
Normally, the flu vaccine triggers the body to develop antibodies that can fight off a specific arrangement of proteins on the surface of the virus. But over time, the arrangement of those proteins mutates into something different. This is why from year to year we hear about H1N1 or H3N4 or H2N5 flu strains, for example. The result: a laborious and expensive process to formulate a new flu vaccine is undertaken every year. This process can take several months, putting the vulnerable at risk while they wait. And to make matters worse, the new vaccine may not anticipate how the virus will mutate and may be much less effective than would be desired.
Long a goal for scientists, a ‘universal’ vaccine that works for all types of flu has remained elusive because of the quick mutating nature of the virus. However, research conducted at The Jenner Institute at Oxford University in England has brought the goal of a one-shot flu vaccination one step closer by targeting proteins within the virus that are common to most types of flu virus.
Nucleoprotein and matrix protein 1, the targets of the new vaccine, are part of the inner structure of flu viruses and are more than 90% identical in all strains of influenza A. These proteins are essential to the survival of the virus and if they are successfully attacked, the virus dies.
In addition to going after different proteins, the new vaccine is novel because rather than provoking the body to produce antibodies to help the fight, it activates T-cells. An integral part of the body’s immune system, T-cells can identify and attack cells infected with the virus.
A small trial with the new vaccine showed promise and further, larger trials are planned to confirm the results.
More information about flu and how to make immunization less painful for your child