It’s that time of year again—no, not the return of pumpkin spice to our coffee shops but instead—FLU SEASON. In the US alone, the flu still kills tens of thousands of people every year and is a major drain on medical and economic resources.
Yet, if you are young and healthy, most likely you don’t think of the flu as a decimating killer, instead it comes into your life in a much more routine way. Every year, like clockwork we seem to find ourselves in the same situations.
We’ll be at work or among friends having a perfectly good time until suddenly we hear something… a cough! It’s not a “clear your throat” kind of cough either, it’s wetter. More foreboding. So we look to our hacking acquaintance only to realize that this isn’t just a cough… they’re sick.
They’re sneezing, sweaty, nauseous… Oh God! They have the flu! It is then that you are struck with one very specific thought: “Man, I wish I’d gotten a flu shot.”
Why the flu shot sucks
Odds are, unless you are in an at-risk population or work in the medical field or around children, you probably do not get the flu shot every year like you should. But, honestly, who could blame you?
Beyond the stress involved in going to a clinic and getting the actual shot, the modern flu vaccine has a lot of problems. Chief among them is the fact that getting the vaccine doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t get the virus that year.
This is because health officials have to try and predict the strains of the influenza virus that will be prevalent in a given year long before any outbreaks actually happen in order to have enough vaccine available. If they get that prediction wrong, the vaccine’s no better than a placebo.
Even when scientists DO correctly predict the problematic strains, there is still a problem of creating a vaccine that will produce a strong enough immune response to actually confer immunity to the virus. Since modern vaccines utilize dead versions of the virus, they primarily only induce antibody formation and not strong T-cell (the disease-fighting white blood cells) reactions. This means that if the antibody count in your system isn’t high enough to knock out the influenza virus before it takes root, you’re gonna get sick anyways.
Luckily, a team of brilliant scientist may have found a way to change all of that.
The end of seasonal flu shots?
Using cutting-edge genetic methods, a joint Chinese-American team at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA has developed a novel vaccine candidate that could be the end of the seasonal flu vaccine as we know it.
How did they manage this? Well, they looked at what made influenza such a tricky virus to combat in the first place: interferons.
Interferons are small proteins our bodies make that are critical in the function of our first-line and adaptive immune responses. However, influenza has particularly strong anti-interferon properties that make it practically invisible to this line of defense.
And since the surface proteins that an antibody might bind to change every season due to the virus’ rapid rate of mutation, this means that no all-encompassing flu vaccine was possible. So, to get around this, what the UCLA team did was painstakingly deconstruct influenza’s entire genome, cataloging every amino acid until they found the sequences that prevented the induction of interferons.
Then, using sophisticated new techniques, they re-engineered several different strains of the virus all stripped of their interferon-blocking abilities. The resulting virus was capable of replicating and infecting cells, but extremely susceptible to the body’s natural immune response.
And when inoculations containing these strains were given to mouse and ferret models, they not only invoked a strong antibody response, like a regular vaccine, but also activated the animals’ T-cells to an incredible degree, meaning that their immune systems would be acutely aware of anything resembling influenza for a very long time.
This is an advancement that is hard to overstate. The rise of pandemics and viral outbreaks in recent years have highlighted the need to create vaccines that offer broad, effective protection, and this new approach to building viral vaccines from the genome up could be just the way that we do that.
And the approach could be used for more than just the flu. The study’s lead author, Ren Sun, relates: “With this approach, the safety and efficacy requirement of vaccines can potentially be achieved simultaneously. In traditional vaccine development, one is usually sacrificed for the other.”
Just think of what the world could be like if hundreds of thousands of people didn’t have to die every year from a disease that most of us think of as “the inconvenience that we got from our worst friend, JAKE!” A world where you only had to get a flu vaccine once a decade until one day, just maybe, no one ever had to get one again.
“But wait,” you say, “a shot’s still a shot, and I hate shots! I’m not doing it.” OH! Did I forget to mention? This new approach actually ISN’T a shot. You would get this vaccine as a simple nasal spray that you can administer yourself in the comfort of your own home…
…Talk about no excuses!
The realities of medical research
Alas, there is still a long way to go before we can get to a world where suffering through an early flu is a thing of the past. This new vaccine has yet to get FDA approval for human testing and as you can probably guess, there is a lot that can go wrong with a vaccine candidate when going from animal to human testing.
Chief among them is the fear that creating an especially strong immune response could lead to the types of lung damage seen with the H5N1 Avian Flu, where a frenzied immune system destroys the lung tissue, often proving fatal. Additionally, while the current vaccine invokes immunity across a range of influenza strains, it may not hold up against every type yet.
And of course, while using a live-virus vaccine could work for relatively healthy people, it may never be a viable option for the old, young, or immunocompromised. All that being said, the work done by these scientists is truly innovative and even if this flu vaccine never pans out, the methods they’ve created will almost certainly lead to a new frontier in immunology and viral genomics.
Until then… get your flu shots. The new research was published in the journal Science.