Trudeau scientists are contributing research toward the ultimate goal of developing a “universal’ flu vaccine that protects against all strains.
Each year, five- to 20-percent of Americans contract influenza. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized annually with the flu, and approximately a quarter of a million people in the industrialized world die from flu or flu-related complications, such as bacterial pneumonia.
Yearly influenza epidemics can seriously affect all age groups, but those at highest risk of complications include children under the age of two and adults 65 or older. As occurred during the 1918 pandemic, and again with the H1N1 pandemic in 2009-10, influenza can also strike healthy people during their prime. Predicting which individuals will be most at risk from one strain or another has been, to date, unsuccessful.
As is the case with many viruses, vaccination is considered the most effective way to protect people from contracting the flu. Current vaccines stimulate production of antibodies that target the “outer coat” of the virus. Since the outer coat of influenza viruses varies among strains and is continuously changing, a vaccine produced against one strain will be less effective or ineffective against other strains. This is highly problematic, because multiple strains circulate in the population each flu season, and new strains are continually emerging. Indeed, as seen with H1N1, a flu outbreak can quickly become a pandemic, causing health professionals to scramble to design and produce a new vaccine and then deliver it to the public, a process which can take six to nine months, or longer.
Trudeau scientists are contributing research toward the ultimate goal of developing a “universal” flu vaccine that protects against all strains of flu. Their innovative approach involves designing a vaccine that targets the “inner parts” of the virus, those areas that are more consistent—and, therefore, recognizable by the immune system—from strain to strain. By training both antibodies and T cells to recognize the stable inner parts of the virus, Trudeau researchers hope to harness the immune system's full power to prevent influenza illness and the many deaths attributed to complications from the disease.