SCIENTISTS believe they are close to creating a universal flu vaccine that could end the need for annual injections in as little as three years.
A team of researchers from Seek, a small biotech firm in London, developed the FLU-v vaccine after working on a group of non mutating proteins that are common to all strains of the flu virus, including those that can cause pandemics.
FLU-v accelerates the creation of particular groups of T-cells, a type of white blood cell that circulates through the body scanning for cell abnormalities and infections. Several small trials suggest that an increased number of T-cells results in the destruction of the non mutating proteins, killing the flu virus before it can produce symptoms such as fevers, coughs and aching muscles.
Scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid) in Washington, part of the world’s largest medical research establishment, have been so impressed by the initial findings that they will this week announce investment of more than £1m for more work and larger-scale trials of FLU-v.
Olga Pleguezuelos, the lead immunologist at Seek, said: “We are confident this will protect people from any new strain of flu and we are hoping it will be fast-tracked through the regulatory process. “The vaccine is made using chemistry, not cells, [so] it can be cheaply produced and stored indefinitely at room temperature. The hope is that it will confer many years of immunity from flu.”
Pleguezuelos and her team hope FLU-v could be available to the public in as little as three years. If its early promise is realised, it could transform the way that flu, estimated to claim up to 12,000 lives in Britain every year, is tackled.
The current system involves people being vaccinated, either by injection or nasal spray, with three or four deactivated strains of flu virus identified each year as posing the highest risk by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The vaccine produces antibodies that fight off the active virus if it arrives. However, the WHO strain predictions are made at least six months in advance, so they can be inaccurate. Flu also mutates rapidly, meaning a different vaccine is required almost every year.
FLU-v is one of a number of potential new vaccines that have undergone trials at the Universal Influenza Vaccine Consortium (Unisec), an EUfunded project at Groningen University in Holland.
It is currently seen as the most advanced single injection vaccine being tested and further Unisec trials, involving 225 healthy volunteers to establish dosage levels, are scheduled for next year.
The peer-reviewed results of a previous smaller trial were published earlier this year by Clinical and Vaccine Immunology journal. Ed Schmidt, a spokesman for Unisec, said: “The preliminary results already indicate we get a much better response in humans [to FLU-v] than we get with seasonal flu vaccine.”
FLU-v is made from a combination of synthetic peptides, which are strings of amino acid molecules. A shortage of amino acids — the building blocks of protein — can result in the body failing to repair itself.
John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London, who has collaborated on the FLU-v project, said: “It is very promising and we’re keeping our fingers crossed. “I’m delighted the Niaid is helping to finance it. Once we have established the general principal of this approach, we could use it against all sorts of other viruses that attack the respiratory system.”
The work planned by Niaid will involve swabbing up to 100 volunteers with a highly infectious strain of flu virus. To assess its effectiveness, half will have been given FLU-v and the remainder a placebo.
Matthew Memoli, director of the clinical studies unit in Niaid’s laboratory of infectious diseases, said: “The hope is that FLU-v will work very well. “We have a vulnerable ageing population and international travel spreading disease like never before.
“This is a novel approach to vaccines that we desperately need.”