NEWLY discovered flu molecules shared by most strains of the virus could help scientists develop a “universal vaccine”, scientists have claimed.
Researchers managed to identify the molecules after subjecting healthy volunteers to flu infections.
They found that participants’ immune systems targeted a specific range of peptides, or protein building blocks, within the internal structure of the flu virus.
Harnessing the immune system’s response to the peptides could produce an all-encompassing multi-strain vaccine, the scientists believe.
Current flu vaccines produce an antibody response to surface molecules which alter rapidly to keep one step ahead of the immune system.
But the internal peptides only change very slowly and do not vary between strains. They also trigger a response from T-cells – white blood cell elements of the immune system – rather than antibodies.
A T-cell vaccine aimed at the molecules has the potential to provide long-term immunity against all major flu strains, including seasonal, avian and swine viruses.
Past flu pandemics have caused disaster on a global scale. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic killed up to 40 million people, more than the number who died in the First World War.
Britain’s last pandemic outbreak of swine flu in 2009 claimed 457 lives. Experts believe more severe pandemics may occur in the future, possibly as a result of a mutated avian flu strain.
Study leader Dr Tom Wilkinson, from Southampton University, said: “We have found that there is an important role for T-cells that recognise the flu virus, which if harnessed could protect against most or even all strains of seasonal and pandemic flu.”
The research is published in the latest online edition of the journal Nature Medicine.