The current flu season has been an extremely rough one so far, but a team that includes Georgia State University researchers has had success in early testing for a potential game-changer – a universal vaccine.
Although the flu shot is still considered to be the best defense against the flu, many people who get the vaccine still end up with the flu. The effectiveness of this year's vaccine is not fully known, but in recent years, it has ranged from 10 percent effectiveness in 2004-2005 to 60 percent in 2010-2011, according to the CDC. Each year, experts try to match the vaccine – which takes five or six months to produce – to the flu strains they think will be causing the illness during the next flu season. This can be difficult to predict, so they're researching the idea of a universal flu vaccine that could protect against any type of flu virus.
Georgia State University researchers and other researchers have successfully developed a universal flu vaccine for Influenza A viruses that worked in mice, giving hope that it could someday work in humans.
Researchers injected the mice and then exposed them to four types of flu virus. This doesn't necessarily mean that a universal vaccine will definitely work in humans, but other experts view it as welcomed news and one scientist expressed "cautious optimism."
The next step is testing the vaccine on ferrets, since their respiratory system is similar to humans'.
In addition to the effectiveness of a universal vaccine, it would also eliminate the need to get vaccinated every year, Dr. Bao-Zhong Wang, associate professor in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at GSU, said in a news release.
The researchers took a different approach from the typical flu vaccine. The vaccine usually focuses on the exterior head of the virus' surface protein. But the head is different for each type of flu virus, so it's difficult to match with the vaccine each year. GSU researchers instead targeted the inside portion of the protein, which is known as the stalk. It's much less quick to change when compared to the head, according to WebMD.
If a universal vaccine is effectively developed for humans, it could be our only effective line of defense if a new flu virus causes a large epidemic, Forbes pointed out. In addition, since the shot wouldn't be needed every year, it would also result in substantial cost savings.