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Health

Researchers say universal flu vaccine works in mice

Ben Schmitt
| Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, 12:57 p.m.
Fourteen Allegheny County residents have died of flu-related complications so far this season, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.
Fourteen Allegheny County residents have died of flu-related complications so far this season, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.

A universal flu vaccine could be a game-changer for nasty flu seasons like the current one wreaking havoc across the country.

Could we be closer to one?

Researchers at Georgia State University say they have developed a universal vaccine that produces long-lasting immunity in mice against various flu strains.

Translation: one such shot could last for years and protect people against different strains.

The research, led by Dr. Lei Deng and co-authored with others from Georgia State, Georgia Tech and Emory University, was published in the journal Nature Communications and funded with a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent deaths from influenza virus, but the virus changes very fast, and you have to receive a new vaccination each year,” Dr. Bao-Zhong Wang, associate professor in the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State, said in a press release this week . “We're trying to develop a new vaccine approach that eliminates the need for vaccination every year.

“We're developing a universal influenza vaccine. You wouldn't need to change the vaccine type every year because it's universal and can protect against any influenza virus.”

Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an Allegheny Health Network internal medicine physician, said the development is promising.

“Normally, we wouldn't pay a lot of attention to an animal model this early in its development, but with the current flu vaccine having so many limitations, we are particularly interested in looking to the future,” he said. “This is certainly an excellent first step.”

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease expert, said a universal flu vaccine would be “akin to the The Holy Grail in the field of infectious diseases.”

“Hopefully, the findings will be able to be replicated in other animal models and eventually humans,” said Adalja, who works for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “An effective universal flu vaccine would be game-changing and diminish the threat that influenza has posed to humans for our entire existence as a species.”

The next step is testing the vaccine on ferrets, which experts say have similar respiratory systems to humans.

A flu strain called H3N2 has been most dominant virus infecting people this season.

The flu kills about 36,000 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Allegheny County reported 4,038 flu cases through Jan. 20, up from nearly 3,000 a week earlier. There have been 340 flu-related hospitalizations this flu season compared to 190 for the entire 2016-17 season.

The county has reported five flu-related deaths in which patients tested positive for flu and had other immune-compromising medical conditions.

Westmoreland County had 1,335 flu cases through Jan. 20, according to the state Health Department.

Itskowitz said flu season shows no signs of slowing.

“It's been a very busy and dangerous season,” he said.

Flu activity usually begins in October and peaks between December and March.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Bencschmitt.

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