Flu busters: Medical minds strive for universal vaccination

Atlanta-area partnerships lead the way in fighting influenza

Photograph by iStockphoto.com

If you were vaccinated against the flu this past winter, you had a 61 percent chance of emerging from the season without getting the bug. That’s according to the CDC, which—along with researchers at Georgia State, Emory, and Georgia Tech—is working to improve the odds even more.

While a single strain of the flu accounted for 98 percent of cases detected last winter, per CDC data, influenza has an ever-growing number of variants, and each vaccine protects against only a few types. Every year scientists must develop a new formula based on their best guess of the coming season’s dominant strains. But that guesswork may eventually be eliminated.

Sang-Moo Kang, an associate professor in GSU’s Center for Inflammation, Immunity, and Infection, is heading up an international team that has pioneered a one-time, universal flu vaccine. Various strains of flu share one trait: a small ion channel membrane protein. Using genetic engineering, researchers took that fragment and built particles around it to mimic the structure of the virus. In mice vaccinated using this new technique, their immune systems were able to fight off multiple viruses.

While a universal vaccine is still far from being available, a partnership between Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is doing clinical trials (i.e., testing on human subjects) of a new vaccine designed specifically to ward off one of the most dangerous influenza strains: H7N9 bird flu, which caused an outbreak of illness and death in China in the spring of 2013. This strain is particularly threatening because humans have no naturally developed immunity to it. Emory is home to one of only five national centers for flu research funded by the National Institutes of Health.

However vaccines evolve in the future, they could be delivered with a painless, self-applied patch being developed at Georgia Tech. The patch, which uses microneedles to transmit the vaccine, recently underwent a successful test in metro Atlanta. It could be purchased in a store or mailed directly to users.

This article originally appeared in our 2014 Health issue under the headline “Flu Busters.”