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Stanford researchers have taken us one step closer to a universal flu vaccine

Getting a yearly flu jab isn’t ideal, but it is necessary. The reason we need to keep topping up on flu vaccines is because the virus continually changes. That means that immunity to last year’s flu virus doesn’t mean anything here in 2019. A number of research labs and universities around this world are working to change this, however, with approaches that range from DNA vaccines to investigations with so-called “killer” T cells.

Now researchers from Stanford University have thrown their hat in the ring with a brand-new approach, which has already proven successful in lab animal tests. “It could be important for coming up with a universal flu vaccine that would protect against pandemic flu,” renowned biochemist Peter Kim, who led the work, said in a statement.

The pioneering approach involves getting the body to recognize a portion of the virus which stays the same, despite the virus’ continuing mutations. In addition to influenza, this could also prove to be a useful approach for combating HIV. Until now, flu vaccines have involved injecting people with either a killed virus or single protein that is found on the virus’ surface. The body’s immune system learns to recognize pieces of this, and can therefore respond if it is attacked by the same virus. What is much harder to achieve is to get the immune system to detect the parts of the virus which don’t change over time.

The Stanford researchers’ breakthrough centers around a protein called a monoclonal antibody, which binds specifically to the spot on the flu virus protein they wanted to recognize. Lab animals that received the flu protein demonstrated an immune response to various strains of flu, rather than just the single strain you would ordinarily expect with a vaccine. Animals that received the regular vaccine did not respond in this way.

While there is still more work to be done before this can move on to human trials, or potential commercialization, it’s an exciting breakthrough which could be applied to a number of different infectious agents.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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