The Quest for the Universal Flu Vaccine

Jonathan Strickland

Jezperklauzen/iStock/Thinkstock

Doctors and scientists face a huge challenge before every flu season -- predicting which strain (or strains) of flu will be prevalent in the coming months. Vaccine manufacturers need that information to produce the right kind of vaccine in the amounts required to prevent large outbreaks. But if predictions are off, you might find yourself sick even if you did get a flu shot. A universal flu vaccine that fights off a broader spectrum of strains would be really handy.

That's exactly what researchers at Stanford are working on. They expect that the universal vaccine will be effective against most flu strains and also be faster and easier to produce than other vaccines. Even better, it could be effective across multiple flu seasons. No more yearly visits to get jabbed by a needle!

So how does it work? First you have to understand the anatomy of a typical flu virus. Covering the virus's exterior are proteins called hemagglutinin (HA). The proteins have two segments, a head and a stem. The head partly determines the virulence of the flu virus (in other words, how likely it is to overcome a typical person's defenses). While the heads of the proteins vary greatly between different strains of flu, the stems tend to resemble each other quite a bit.

Today's flu vaccines depend upon the heads of those proteins. Doctors make a guess as to which flu strain will be prevalent in the season and vaccine manufacturers make a solution that contains inactive viruses with the respective HA heads. When injected into a patient, these viruses trigger the body's defense system, teaching it to identify and attack the virus. It builds up your defenses and prepares you for any future encounters with the stuff.

The Stanford researchers are experimenting with designing a vaccine that depends not upon the head of the proteins but the stems. They reason that a vaccine based on the protein stems will be effective against nearly all strains of flu because they all have similar stems. Their work is still very much in the experimental stage but if it pans out we could have ourselves an effective defense that could save thousands of lives each year.

You can read more about the researchers' work at the link above, including the scientific processes they've used so far in their experiments. Meanwhile, I'm going to stock up on chicken noodle soup until the vaccine becomes reality.