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Project to Develop Universal Flu Vaccine


(U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

27 October 2017. An initiative joining academic, private, and national labs is designing a vaccine that covers all influenza strains, with clinical studies expected to begin early next year. The Universal Influenza Vaccine Initiative is funded by The Human Vaccines Project and led by a research team at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The Human Vaccines Project is a public-private partnership that seeks to harness the immune system to prevent and treat both infectious diseases, such as influenza, and non-communicable diseases like cancer. While influenza symptoms can range from mild to severe, vulnerable populations like young children or the elderly, run risks of dangerous complications from the disease. The organization cites data showing influenza kills from 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide each year.

Seasonal flu vaccines are available to prevent contracting the disease, but they rely on accurate projections of the most common strains of flu to appear during the year. Because of the long lead time to prepare and distribute vaccines, those projections need to be made months in advance. As a result, some strains of the disease may not be covered by seasonal vaccines, which can lead to the vaccines being ineffective for large segments of the population. According to annual studies by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seasonal flu vaccines were found to be effective in preventing the flu in no more than 60 percent of cases, with that number falling to as low as 10 percent in 2004-5.

The new initiative aims to discover techniques for generating long-term immune responses across influenza strains in diverse populations worldwide. The project is led by researchers at Vanderbilt University, James Crowe and Buddy Creech. Crowe is director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, while Creech directs Vanderbilt’s Vaccine Research Program. Scientists at University of California in San Diego, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, J. Craig Venter Institute, University of British Columbia, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are taking part.

Beginning in 2018, teams will begin clinical studies taking blood and tissue samples from individuals receiving vaccines and those infected with the flu virus. Researchers will use computational tools, including artificial intelligence, to better understand factors responsible for flu infections and protections against infections. The goal is to determine how the immune system protects against different strains of the flu among diverse populations and regions, and what it takes for a vaccine to generate long-term immunity.

“Until now,” says Crowe in a university statement, “we have lacked the biomedical and computational tools to probe the complex and dynamic features of the human immune system in a complete way. But with today’s technology, we can decipher the core principles behind how the immune system protects vulnerable populations, and develop a full understanding of how it prevents and controls influenza to inform the development of a universally effective vaccine.”

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