Last week, I complained about the British weather (which is still awful by the way) and outlined how the pharma industry is already preparing for this year’s winter flu season. Following on from that, I’ve just read a really interesting story about the holy grail of flu vaccine manufacturers — the possibility of a super, universal vaccine that could protect against all common strains of influenza.
Sound like a fairy tale? Well, it’s safe to say that the research is definitely in its early days so we’re a long way away from a vaccine, but important progress has been made by the discovery of an antibody that can fight all types of the influenza A virus, which commonly affects humans and some animals. The discovery was made by scientists at the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC), the Institute for Research in Biomedicine and Humabs BioMed (both in Switzerland), and has been described in a number of media headlines as a “super antibody”.
“Historically, it has been impossible to predict precisely what kind of flu could develop into an epidemic and, as such, it has been necessary to develop new vaccines each year to tackle the different viruses. Our discovery may eventually help to develop a universal vaccine,” Dr Steve Gamblin from the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research said in a statement.
According to a report from BBC news, the antibody—known as F16— targets the haemagglutinin protein, which is found on the surface of all influenza A viruses. Experiments were conducted on mice to test the antibody’s potential. When the mice were injected with the antibody up to two days after being given a lethal dose of the influenza virus, all of them survived and recovered. The antibody was discovered after the scientists looked at more than 100000samples of immune cells from patients who had flu or had received a flu vaccine.
A report from Reuters added that previous research has found antibodies that work in Group 1 influenza A viruses or against most Group 2 viruses, but not against both.
Sir John Skehel from the MRC’s National Institute for Medical Research explained that knowing the structure of the antibody and how it interacted with haemmagglutin would aid the search for a vaccine, but added that this development would be years away.
“It is estimated that every year millions of people are infected with influenza A viruses and, although the majority of infections are mild, those in vulnerable groups, such as the very old or the very young, may be worse affected and more likely to die or be hospitalised. As we saw with the 2009 pandemic, a comparatively mild strain of influenza can place a significant burden on emergency services. Having a universal treatment which can be given in emergency circumstances would be an invaluable asset,” said Skehel.