English scientists announced this week that they had successfully tested a universal flu vaccine on humans — perhaps previewing a day when seasonal shots are no longer necessary. Dr. Sarah Gilbert and her team at Oxford University's Jenner Institute focused on a different part of the virus than past vaccines — an approach that could be used to combat all strains of the flu with a single shot. (Watch a Sky News report about the research.) The new vaccine successfully prevented some test patients from getting sick, and though the results are preliminary, experts are hopeful that Gilbert's vaccine could one day help conquer the flu for good. Here's a brief guide to the breakthrough:
How did the study work?
Gilbert's team gave the vaccine to 11 healthy volunteers, then infected them with H3N2 influenza A, a flu strain that was identified in Wisconsin in 2005. By monitoring their patients' symptoms — including runny noses, sore throats, and mucus production — daily, researchers found that the vaccine was effective. "We did get an indication that the vaccine was protecting people, says Gilbert, as quoted by The Guardian. The trials were also reassuring in terms of vaccine safety.
How does this differ from past vaccines?
Gilbert and her team targeted two similar proteins — nucleoprotein and matrix protein 1 — inside the influenza virus (and common to almost all strains), instead of the proteins that coat the disease's outer shell, which mutate from year to year and have been the target of past attempts to stop the disease.
What are the ramifications?
Up until now, says Deborah MacKenzie at The New Scientist, "producing a vaccine tailor-made for each new flu virus was such a long, clumsy process" that, by the time one was approved to use, it was often too late. If there were a universal vaccine, treating the flu would be a one-time event — akin to inoculating against a disease like tetanus. Mark Fielder, a medical microbiologist quoted by The Daily Mail, says that this study is "extremely encouraging." It's still very early in the process, though, and Gilbert and her team must still test the vaccine in a large field study — which means that it will be several years before her vaccine could make an appearance at your local doctor's office.