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Immune cell discovery takes us one step closer to a universal flu vaccine

The effects of the flu virus can range from debilitating to deadly. That makes all the more welcome news that a group of international researchers has made a discovery which could take us one step closer to the universal, one-shot flu vaccine that people around the world have been dreaming of.

“Our work focuses on the development of a universal influenza vaccine: one that would not require annual reformulation,” Marios Koutsakos, a researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, told Digital Trends. “Our publication in Nature Immunology this week demonstrates that a subset of white blood cells called ‘killer’ T cells can provide immunity across all the different types of influenza viruses that can infect humans. … This is a very exciting and novel finding as it provides us with new insights on how to go about designing a universal influenza vaccine. In essence, we have identified the parts of influenza viruses that are common across all strains, and to which the killer T cells can respond, too.”

T cells are a type of white blood cell whose job is to scan the body for abnormalities and infections. They are a crucial part of the human immune system. “Killer” T cells possess the ability to target and kill infected cells. By using a scanning technique called mass spectrometry, the researchers were able to identify parts of the flu virus shared across all flu strains. Developing a long-lasting flu vaccine is normally very difficult because the virus continues to mutate, meaning that the body is not able to come up with a permanent way to fight it after being exposed once or even multiple times.

While this latest discovery is still at its early stages, the team believes that it could be possible to use these insights to develop a vaccine capable of getting around this problem. In animal tests, the researchers were able to activate the killer cells in mice. These vaccination test studies greatly reduced the levels of flu virus and inflammation in the animals’ airways.

Right now, however, there’s some bad news: The “killer” T cells identified in the study are only found in 50 percent of the world’s population. Future research could potentially get around this, though. “Our next step is to apply the same methods used in this study to identify more ‘killer’ T cells that can respond to all strains of flu so as to make a universal influenza vaccine for everyone,” Koutsakos continued. “We have a patent which will allow us to develop such a vaccine.”

Coming soon to a pharmacy shelf near you. Or so we hope, at least.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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