Researchers at Johnson & Johnson are getting closer to developing a universal flu vaccine that could work against a number of strains of the virus, a holy grail for the medical field that could eliminate the need to formulate a new vaccine every year.
A study conducted by the Scripps Research Institute and J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceutical unit showed that, in mice and monkeys, a molecule designed in the lab to mimic a key part of the flu virus’s attack could protect against multiple influenza strains, not just one.
The findings, published online Monday by the journal Science, are just a “proof of principle,” and much work is left to be done to make a vaccine that works in humans.
Scripps and J&J targeted a protein on the surface of influenza, called hemagglutinin, which appears on all subtypes of flu and lets the virus enter cells in the body. The researchers developed a molecule called an immunogen that imitates the structure of the protein, helping the body to recognize and be able to attack a fundamental component of the flu virus.
“These tests showed that antibodies elicited against one influenza subtype could protect against a different subtype,” Ian Wilson, chairman of the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology at Scripps, said in a statement.
Scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health also published a study Monday in the journal Nature Medicine that showed animals were protected from the flu with a vaccine made of nanoparticles to target part of the hemagglutinin protein.
The approach is different from typical flu vaccines that target the outer structures of the virus, which mutate into the new strains that arise. Scientists develop a new vaccine for each flu season based on predictions about which strains are likely to spread the most.
Last year’s seasonal flu vaccine in the U.S. proved just 23 percent effective against the illness. Seasonal flu causes as many as 49,000 deaths a year in the U.S. over a 30-year period ending in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The next step for Scripps and J&J researchers is to determine if the antibody response works the same way in humans as it does in animals.