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Universal flu vaccine one step closer

Feeling stuffy and miserable? Forgot your flu jab this year? What you need is a vaccine that will stop flu once and for all – and prospects for one have just got brighter.

A protein touted as flu's Achilles' heel when it was discovered last year has now been tested as a vaccine, and it worked, at least partially, against every version of human flu.

People need to be vaccinated against flu every year. This is because the flu virus is a scam artist: it uses a big, showy surface protein to attract your immune system, then changes it so your immune system won't recognise it next time round. Vaccines must change yearly to match it.

Worse, there are 16 different varieties of this protein, called Hemagglutinin (HA), and immunity to one doesn't work on the others. Pandemics happen when flu swaps one for another, as swine flu did last year.

If we could identify a flu protein that the virus can't alter so readily, then we should be able to elicit immunity that recognizes all kinds of flu.

Last year, two groups reported a promising candidate: part of the stalk of the mushroom-shaped HA, a vital bit of viral machinery which doesn't vary much over time or between viruses.

One of those groups, at Scripps Research Institute in la Jolla, California, teamed up with Peter Palese and colleagues at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York to test that protein as a vaccine. They report that 54 amino acids from this bit of the stalk, linked to a protein that attracts immune reactions, induced antibodies that work against viruses from every flu family that attacks people.

These included three pandemic viruses (H1, H2 and H3), three others that attack occasionally (H6, H9 and H7), and the H5N1 bird flu from 2004 – albeit modified to make it less deadly.

Mice were injected with this protein twice, three weeks apart, to allow their immunity to develop. Two weeks after the second injection each mouse was exposed to one type of live flu virus, as were unvaccinated mice.
 
 

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