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Wistar Institute researchers exploring a universal influenza vaccine that would eliminate annual flu shots

PHILADELPHIA — A team of scientists at The Wistar Institute has determined that it might be possible to stimulate the immune system against multiple strains of influenza virus by sequentially vaccinating individuals with distinct influenza strains isolated over the last century, researchers announced Monday. 

Their results also suggest that world health experts might need to re-evaluate standard tests used for surveillance of novel influenza strains. Their findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.

According to the Wistar researchers, their analysis could lead to an alternative approach to creating a "universal" flu vaccine — a vaccine that would provide resistance to seasonal and pandemic influenza strains over many years, negating the need for an annual flu shot.

"Influenza vaccines are very safe and provide good protection. However, we need to continuously update seasonal flu vaccines because influenza viral proteins change over time," noted Scott Hensley, an assistant professor at The Wistar Institute and corresponding author on the study. "Since influenza viruses are constantly changing, we all have unique pre-exposure histories that depend on when we were born and the specific types of viruses that circulated during our childhood."

Most current efforts to create universal vaccines hinge on the idea of generating antibodies against a portion of the virus that is relatively unchanged year-to-year.

"Our studies demonstrate that individuals that are infected sequentially with dramatically different influenza strains mount antibody responses against a conserved region of influenza virus," Hensley said. "Since we now know that pre-exposure events can influence vaccine responsiveness in a predictable way, we can begin to design vaccine regiments that preferentially elicit antibody responses against conserved regions of influenza virus."


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