Getting an annual flu vaccine is a drag. It takes time. It might not work. It hurts.
Public health experts have long fantasized about giving people one jab that would safely last a lifetime and protect against all kinds of flu. That dream is still a long way off, but the prospect of giving people one vaccine that could provide wide protection for at least a few years is getting more realistic.
Figuring out the molecular structure of the flu virus, which researchers detailed in two key papers in 2009, enabled scientists to realize they had been targeting only the head of the virus, which varies by strain. Both new studies took aim at the stem — the stick of the lollipop, as one researcher described it — which doesn’t change much with evolution and may make a better target for a universal vaccine.
“Our understanding of protein structure, the virus and the virus life cycle is allowing us to do things that we didn’t think was possible even a few years ago,” says Gary Nabel, chief scientific officer at drugmaker Sanofi and an author on the Nature Medicine paper.
In the end, a vaccine will probably need to take multiple approaches at once, like combination therapy against cancer, says Jeffery Taubenberger of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He wrote a July mBio paper showing the effectiveness of a vaccine made from a cocktail of engineered viruses.
Either approach will take at least another five years of testing before it would be ready to fight seasonal flu, Nabel says.