Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Friday, 5 September 2008 17:00 UK

Universal flu vaccine tests start

By Emma Wilkinson
Health reporter, BBC News

Prof Adrian Hill explains the vaccine.

A universal flu vaccine which could mean an end to the annual jab is being tested on UK volunteers.

It targets a different part of the virus to current vaccines, which means it does not have to be altered every year to match circulating strains.

If successful, the vaccine developed by Oxford University researchers would also be a key weapon in a flu pandemic.

Experts said such a vaccine was the "holy grail" for flu researchers but there was still a long way to go.

Study leader, Dr Sarah Gilbert, said traditional influenza vaccines are designed to prompt an immune response to H and N proteins on the outer shell of the virus.

With this vaccine, we could end up having pretty much everyone vaccinated - a situation more like measles where you don't really see it anymore
Dr Sarah Gilbert

But these proteins are prone to mutation - and every year the vaccine has to be reformulated on the basis of the strains likely to be most prominent.

So instead, the researchers have developed a vaccine on the basis of proteins inside the cell, which are far more similar across different strains.

The vaccine uses a weakened smallpox virus to carry the proteins into the body - a technique that has already been used in malaria and TB vaccines.

Once the virus has invaded the cell and starts to multiply, these inner proteins called matrix protein 1 and nucleo-protein, are revealed to the immune system.

A specific type of immune cell, called a T cell, then learns to recognise and destroy cells containing the proteins the next time it encounters them.

Tests

Initially 12 people will be vaccinated to test the dose before further studies are done to check its effectiveness in people exposed to flu.

HOW FLU VACCINE WORKS

info-graphic

New universal flu vaccine is injected into the arm and is taken up by healthy cells.

info-graphic

Cells containing vaccine attract immune cells which multiply and move around the body.

info-graphic

Immune cells now trained to recognise proteins inside virus, which enters body via airways.

info-graphic

Killer immune cells recognise flu-infected cells and destroy them along with flu virus.

1 of 4

Dr Gilbert said if they were successful it could drastically change the way flu vaccine is used.

"With having to make new vaccine every year there's never enough to go around.

"With this vaccine, we could end up having pretty much everyone vaccinated - a situation more like measles where you don't really see it anymore."

In the case of a pandemic, stockpiles of the vaccine could be made in advance instead of having to wait for an outbreak to then identify the particular strain of flu.

Potentially, once people had received the vaccine they would only need a booster once every five to10 years.

But she added the research team had five to 10 years of further tests ahead of them.

However, it is hoped a similar approach might eventually also be used to combat HIV, TB, malaria and even cancer.

Professor John Oxford, a flu vaccine expert at Queen Mary, University of London said such a vaccine would be the "ultimate prize".

"But it's a fairly difficult prize to get - it may just be a question of luck.

"There are people trying all kinds of strategies."

He added that having to manufacture different flu vaccines every year was a "huge burden" on pharmaceutical companies.

"This team have experience with this type of vaccine so they may well get there."




SEE ALSO
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