Every autumn, we’re reminded to roll up our sleeves and get our flu shot to safeguard against influenza, because vaccines are undeniably effective in reducing the risk of contracting this contagious respiratory illness.

But imagine a potential breakthrough that could replace the need for annual flu vaccinations. The American Lung Association and Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio have teamed up to do just that: accelerate efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine, a type of shot which would not need to be delivered every year and would offer more protection than current vaccines.

“Our goal is to come up with a universal vaccine that will immunize people against all influenza strains, with long-lasting protection,” said Luis Martinez-Sobrido, PhD, Professor at Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed). “This partnership with the American Lung Association enables us to move quickly with this vaccine research.”

As the name implies, the three-year, $500,000 Accelerator Program grant to Texas Biomed from the American Lung Association Research Institute speeds up existing, promising research to drive innovations in respiratory health.

Dr Luis Martinez Sobrido Luis Martinez-Sobrido, PhD, Professor at Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed)

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between October 2022 and April 2023, there were between 27 million and 54 million people sickened from influenza. During the same time period, there were 300,000-650,000 flu hospitalizations and 19,000-58,000 deaths attributed to the disease.

Current influenza vaccines help protect people against severe illness and hospitalization from the four most commonly predicted circulating flu virus strains each year. Experts stress that these seasonal flu vaccines offer the best protection against flu and should be received each year by everyone from six months of age and older.

Predicting Seasonal Flu Strains

Each year before flu season, scientists must predict which influenza strains are most likely to be prevalent in the upcoming months and select four of the strains to include in the next seasonal flu vaccine. Then, manufacturers need time to produce and distribute the vaccine. However, during that time, dominant strains of the virus can change in unexpected ways, potentially decreasing the protection provided by the vaccine.

An effective universal flu vaccine could eliminate these problems by protecting its recipients against a wider variety of strains. It would ideally also provide long-term immunity, so people may not need to be vaccinated every year.

Scientists have been approaching a universal flu vaccine by looking at similarities across flu virus strains. The strategy is to find one or two areas that don’t change much from strain to strain, and then train the immune system to make protective antibodies, thus protecting people from different strains at the same time.

One promising area of interest is a portion of the flu protein called hemagglutinin (HA). While one portion of the HA protein, known as the head, tends to change as the flu virus spreads and evolves, a more stable portion, known as the stem, evolves more slowly. As a result, the stem is very similar across many different types of the flu virus, so directing the immune system to generate protective antibodies against the stem may provide broad protection across strains.

Dr. Martinez-Sobrido’s team has previously worked to identify antibodies targeting slower-changing parts of the virus and to evaluate their protection in animal models. They are now working to develop a universal flu vaccine that generates antibodies that can broadly prevent flu virus strains from causing infection. The antibodies recognize key pieces of the virus to help a person’s immune system clear infected cells from the body. The hope is these antibodies can be used to both prevent and treat influenza.

“This same vaccine technology could also be useful in developing a universal vaccine against SARS-CoV2, which causes COVID-19,” Martinez-Sobrido said. “That virus also constantly mutates and requires regular boosters to match circulating strains.”

A Shared Vision for a Universal Flu Vaccine

“Developing a universal flu vaccine to provide protection against seasonal and pandemic flu viruses would be a global public health breakthrough,” said Harold Wimmer, President and CEO of the American Lung Association.

“As we witnessed with the most recent pandemic, there is a great need to create vaccines that reduce the symptoms of respiratory infection,” he said. “Texas Biomed is a global leader in translational research and has a long history of experience in vaccine development. Combined with the American Lung Association’s history of working towards preventing and improving lung disease, we share a vision to work towards creating a universal flu vaccine.”

To learn more about the exciting work funded by the American Lung Association Research Institute, visit lung.org/research. To learn more about how vaccines work, visit lung.org/vaccines.

For more information about Texas Biomed, visit txbiomed.org.

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