Biomedical researchers at The Ohio State University are racing to learn whether a flu shot contains enough antibodies to block the virus that killed more than 80 people at the University of Maryland in September.
The research team hopes to determine how many of the two strains of the mainstay flu vaccine used worldwide last season were generated with new instructions that prevent the most lethal strains of the virus, mumps and diphtheria.
Experts say the vaccine is routinely adjusted with doses and formulations, but have not been able to predict which strains are likely to be a threat.
“It was our understanding that when the egg virus is reengineered to be sterile, it does not have a very good ability to cause illness in people,” said Maureen Fairweather, who led a recent Ohio State University study that identified genetic changes at the nucleus of the viral protein (F246) during the assembly phase.
“We now have an adequate percentage of people who had such antibodies last year that we can go ahead and say the vaccinated did prevent the flu from making people sick,” she said.
“Hopefully we will increase that by, let’s say, another 10% to 15% of the whole population. That would also give us an idea as to how many people are at some risk.”
The study could help shape clinical trial studies designed to get the flu shot more effective, determine which immune system mechanisms are effective against flu and help make the vaccine universal so that healthy people can get a flu shot even when they do not contract the flu.
“Immune system effects may not only change how we fight the flu virus but how we think about how we fight the flu virus,” said Fairweather, a postdoctoral research fellow in Ohio State’s department of molecular, cellular and developmental biology.
“It’s new, but not a new approach. It’s kind of like taking a survey of millions of people. Then you tweak the question. That’s kind of the thing we’re trying to do.”
An estimated 16,000 Americans die every year from seasonal flu.