Influenza – a viral infection that many people think is barely different from the common cold – is actually caused by a different strain of virus and poses a much greater threat to health, especially in children and the elderly.
Unfortunately, the currently available vaccines only offer protection from specific types of the flu, reduce the likelihood of the need to seek medical attention by only 40 per cent, and need to be administered every year.
This picture, however, might soon change, as a group of researchers, reporting in the journal Nature Immunology, have recently discovered that a particular type of immune cell is capable of protecting against all types of the illness for good.
“Influenza B immunology particularly has remained largely understudied because it doesn’t have pandemic potential,” said senior author on the paper Prof Katherine Kedzierska from the University of Melbourne. “However, it is a serious virus that can lead to death and severe illness, mostly in children, and was one of the missing pieces of the universal flu protection puzzle.”
Having regard to the previously established involvement of killer T cells in the body’s fight against the flu, the researchers used mass spectrometry to identify their common epitopes (the parts of antigens recognised by the immune system), or viral targets, present in the blood and lungs of infected patients.
Results showed that killer T cells latch onto the epitopes of all three (A, B, and C) strains of the infection, meaning they could probably be harnessed to formulate a universal vaccine which does not require annual top-ups.
“Our study introduces a new paradigm whereby [killer] T cells confer unprecedented cross-reactivity across all influenza viruses, a key finding for the design of universal vaccines,” wrote the researchers in their paper.
Given the success, the obvious next step for the team will be to use their (already patented) findings to bring the proposed vaccine to the world, hopefully in the near future.