Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have discovered that the 2009 'swine flu' (H1N1) vaccine has the potential to be used to create a universal vaccine for influenza. If this potential can be exploited, it is hoped that the need for seasonal flu vaccinations can be eliminated altogether.
In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic cost the lives of more than 14,000 people, and it is estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 deaths are caused by seasonal flu annually.
"The flu virus has a protein called hemagglutin, or HA for short," said Professor John Schrader, Canada Research Chair in Immunology and Director of UBC's Biomedical Research Centre, who led the research. "This protein is like a flower with a head and stem. The flu virus binds to human cells via the head of the HA, much like a socket and plug.
"Current flu vaccines target the head of the HA to prevent infections, but because the flu virus mutates very quickly, this part of the HA changes rapidly, hence the need for different vaccines every flu season."
Professor Schrader and his colleagues, whose work was published in the latest issue of the journal Frontiers of Immunology
, discovered that the 2009 H1N1 vaccine triggers antibodies that offer protection against numerous flu viruses, including the potentially lethal 'bird flu' (H5N1). This news is likely to be welcomed by many public health and bioterrorism experts amid concerns published recently in the journal Nature
, that new mutations of the H5N1 virus could lead to infection amongst mammals and humans.
As Professor Schrader explained, this vaccine demonstrates wide-ranging effectiveness because of the way in which it targets the HA protein. "[Rather] than attacking the variable head of the HA, the antibodies attacked the stem of the HA, neutralising the virus," he said. "The stem plays such an integral role in penetrating the cell that it cannot change between different variants of the flu virus."
The researchers believe that their findings could facilitate the development of a new flu vaccine, capable of protecting against many different flu variants.