World / Science & Health

Discovery points way to universal flu vaccine


A new type of flu vaccine developed at the U.S. National Institutes of Health outperformed existing products in animal tests, possibly paving the way for a new generation of vaccines.

Researchers led by Gary Nabel, the former director of the Vaccine Research Center at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, fused a protein called hemagglutinin, on the surface of the virus, to ferritin, another protein that carries iron in the blood, creating a new type of nanoparticle that elicited broader and more potent immunity than products sold by Sanofi and Novartis AG, according to the study, published online Thursday in the journal Nature.

The result may point the way toward a so-called universal vaccine that can be used against different viruses even as they mutate to evade the immune system, Nabel said.

The experimental product is “taking us probably several steps down the road towards the universal flu vaccine,” Nabel said. It also “may have more diverse applications. We don’t have to limit ourselves to influenza.”

Flu viruses can mutate rapidly, creating threats faster than current technology makes new vaccines. Between 1976 and 2006, flu caused annual deaths ranging from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000, according to estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. That costs the federal government more than $10 billion annually, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Worldwide, flu causes between 250,000 and 500,000 fatalities every year, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization. In China this year, a new type of bird flu known as H7N9 has sickened at least 131 people and killed 36 of them, according to the WHO.

The synthetic nanoparticle vaccine, which was tested on mice and ferrets, works by stimulating the production of neutralizing antibodies that latch onto parts of the virus that are common to different strains.

Given that it is made entirely from recombinant ingredients, it is safer to make than standard vaccines, which are produced by growing the virus in eggs or cultured cells, according to a Nature press release.

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