For millions of people, getting a flu shot is an autumn tradition, along with going back to school or watching football. But what if a one-time inoculation were to make all subsequent vaccinations obsolete? What if just a single influenza vaccine offered protection against each virus strain “going around” in any given year?
The Wistar Institute got one step closer to that vision this spring when it received a U.S. patent for a novel synthetic vaccine technology that has the potential to be developed into a “universal” flu vaccine—eliminating the need for annual flu shots and protecting against future flu pandemics, including avian and swine flu.
Annually in the United States, 200,000 people are hospitalized and 40,000 die from the flu. A universal flu vaccine has the potential to save the U.S. healthcare system $10 billion a year; the value of lives saved would be immeasurable.
Current flu vaccines trigger an immune response to viral proteins that change constantly, which is the reason last year’s flu vaccine isn’t effective against this year’s flu strains. As a result, people must receive annual shots to be protected against the particular virus expected to circulate each year. In contrast, the Wistar vaccine prototype targets a deep part of the virus that remains stable year after year.
Wistar researchers, led by Hildegund C. J. Ertl, M.D., head of The Wistar Institute Vaccine Center, are actually working on two universal-vaccine prototypes: a peptide vaccine (the technology for which the patent was granted) and a viral vaccine. The two may be used in sequence for a one-two boost to the immune system. With colleagues at Temple University, Children’s Hospital of
Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, scientists at Wistar are working in pursuit of the one vaccine that could make “flu season” a thing of the past.