Most of you are probably enjoying the summer weather. Unfortunately, I’m based in the UK where June and July have been saturated with wet windy days. To add to the wintery feeling, this week I’ve read a lot in the news about flu vaccines. Just as some of us in the north of England have already accepted that summer is over (before it began I might add), vaccine manufacturers are also preparing for this winter’s round of seasonal influenza.
This week, for instance, Novartis started shipping its flu vaccine, Fluvirin, across the US, while MedImmune, a unit of AstraZeneca, has been talking about shipments of its three-strain influenza vaccine, FluMist. It’s not unusual for vaccine manufacturers to begin making preparations at this time of year, but one particularly interesting piece of influenza news in the headlines this week concerns a novel breath test that shows promise for measuring an individual’s immune response to the H1N1 virus.
The test, developed by researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and Syft Technologies, measures biomolecules (exhaled nitric oxide) that accumulate in response to H1N1. By identifying people who have already been infected with the virus (and who are thus extremely unlikely to contract the same strain again), the test could reduce unnecessary vaccinations. There’s nothing wrong with being vaccinated against a flu you have already caught, but it does put a bit of a drain on vaccine stocks, which can be scarce depending on public demand.
According to a press statement describing the breath test research, in 2009, more than half of the people in Glasgow (Scotland, UK) who were vaccinated against H1N1 had already been infected with the virus. It’s believed that similar patterns would have been seen throughout the UK. Given the fact that the 2009 swine flu pandemic is still fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s likely that demand for flu vaccines will be high over the next few years so it’s important to make sure that stocks do not go to waste.
There’s still a way to go though before the test can be used commercially. According to the researchers, further work is needed to identify other compounds that are associated with an immune response. It will also be important to identify the exact mechanism that underlies the increase in exhaled nitric oxide triggered by the virus.
It’s definitely an interesting piece of research, but the problem with any influenza R&D is that it can become out of date quickly. By the time an H1N1 breath test is available, it could be that a new strain is filling the headlines and that nobody really remembers H1N1. On a more positive note, though, the research demonstrates the potential benefits that breath analysis can offer to medical diagnostics. And if/when a test does become available for H1N1, perhaps there will be potential to create tests for other strains.
If you’re interested in this research, the full scientific article is available for free (for a limited time) in IOP Publishing’s Journal of Breath Research.