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Pitt researchers work to develop single vaccine to fight flu strains

| Thursday, July 19, 2012, 11:50 a.m.
Research Associate Corey Crevar (seated) and Dr. Ted Ross have been working on making a universal flu vaccine at Pitt's Center for Vaccine Research Thursday, July 19, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Annual flu shots could become a thing of the past if Pitt researchers succeed in a new venture.

Dr. Ted M. Ross and Pitt's Center for Vaccine Research are working with Sanofi Pasteur, the largest vaccine-oriented company in the world, to develop a universal flu vaccine to fight multiple strains.

“It's designed to stimulate an antibody response that will recognize all strains of influenza — not just now, but into the future so that we can completely eliminate or severely cut down on the number of cases,” Ross, an associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, said.

Ross added that the vaccine could be on the market in 10 to 15 years.

The seasonal flu vaccine will be created using a method Ross perfected while searching for a vaccine for the bird flu.

“His technology is easily adaptable to other viruses,” said Dr. Wilbur Chen, an expert on influenza vaccines and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “He's taken a difficult influenza virus like bird flu rather than a simple one like the seasonal ones and shown protection.”

Using computer modeling technology, Ross and his team figured out similarities across many strains of bird flu. Then they developed a single synthetic vaccine to protect against various strains, testing it successfully in ferrets and mice.

Flu vaccines today are created using three inactivated strains and take at least six months to make. Ross' method takes as little as four months..

Chen said a universal vaccine likely would cut down on how often vaccinations are necessary,

“If we can come up with a universal vaccine, certainly that gets rid of us having to vaccinate every single year,” Chen said. “From a public health standpoint, it's exceedingly hard to get a large portion of the population to get a vaccine every year.”

Ross and his researchers hope their vaccine would stay effective for five to 10 years before a booster would be necessary. “It would be more like a tetanus shot and it would protect more of the population,” Ross said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are about 36,000 annual flu-associated deaths in the United States. It said about 132.1 million doses of the 2011-12 season's vaccine were distributed in the United States as of February.

Adam Wagner is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7956 or

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