Attempt to develop long-term vaccine against all flu viruses
Flu viruses can be very dangerous to human beings. New vaccines have to get developed every year, because viruses mutate very quickly. Virologist Professor Lars Hangartner from the University of Zurich is attempting to create a new vaccine with long-term protection that protects humans from all kinds of flu viruses.
Because of the flu virus’s frequent change in appearance, it cannot properly be identified by the immune system. The virus changes a protein – the hemagglutinin – that allows it to dock with a cell. This process permits the virus to open the cell and insert its own genetic material.
Flu viruses are globetrotters and tend to occur in winter season. While they prevail in the Northern Hemisphere from November to April, the risk to have the flu in the Southern Hemisphere is high from April to November. Therefore, the World Health Organization publishes recommendations for two unequal vaccine formulations every year. Even though there are several explanations for the seasonal outbreak of the flu, none of them has yet been scientifically proven.
The effects of recent vaccines against flu viruses are insufficient. Besides the fact that a vaccination is necessary every year, complete protection cannot be guaranteed. Researcher Lars Hangarter wants to change this and develop a vaccine that bears a long lasting effect – ideally it only has to be applied once in a lifetime! Professor Hangartner and his team examined the surface of the virus and found a vulnerable area that does not change as frequently as the hemagglutinin, but allows antibodies to dock with and thereby attack the virus.
First investigations and results appeared to be very promising, but soon the research team realized the difficulty of making the immune system produce antibodies through vaccination. Experiments on mice showed that the virus is very adaptive and protects itself. Professor Hangartner’s challenge is now to find a way to break through the virus’s defense. If he succeeds, he might develop a flu vaccine that only needs to be applied once in a person’s lifetime and can resist many different potential flu viruses.