The flu can be an unpredictable threat.
There are actually three types of influenza viruses (A, B and C) that cause the flu. These types are further classed into “subtypes”, like the A/H1N1 swine flu or A/H5N1 avian flu.
Each year, healthcare professionals predict which strains of the flu virus will be most common and mass-manufacture a vaccine targeting those strains.
This changes the makeup of the flu shot you get year to year. However, because it’s based on a prediction, it’s more effective some years than in others.
Vaccines generally work by giving the body a practice run for when a real infection occurs: this is a threat, destroy it if you see it. For many viruses and bacteria that don’t change a lot this works just fine, but the flu is sneaky and it often changes the way it looks.
Vaccines are also strain-specific (they teach your immune system to recognize the outside part of the virus), so when the flu changes the “old” vaccine is no longer effective against the “new” virus.
We’re working on a new type of vaccine that exploits parts of the influenza virus that don’t change as much as the rest of the virus as it evolves.
In collaboration with Trevor Douglas’ group from Indiana University, we’re developing and engineering a universal flu vaccine that would be protective against many (if not all) influenza strains.
It will teach the body to mount a protective and non-damaging immune response to the conserved parts of influenza viruses.
This research will take the guesswork out of influenza vaccines and could revolutionize the way we prevent flu infections.