Annual flu shots might soon become a thing of the past, and threats such as avian and swine flu might disappear with them as a vaccine touted as the "holy grail" of flu treatment could be ready for human trials next year.
That's earlier than the National Institutes of Health estimated in 2010, when they said a universal vaccine could be five years off. By targeting the parts of the virus that rarely mutate, researchers believe they can develop a vaccine similar to the mumps or measles shot—people will be vaccinated as children and then receive boosters later.
That differs from the current '60s-era technology, according to Joseph Kim, head of Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which is working on the universal vaccine. Each year, the seasonal flu vaccine targets three or four strains that researchers believe will be the most common that year. Previous seasons' vaccines have no effect on future strains of the virus, because it mutates quickly. The seasonal vaccine also offers no protection against outbreaks, such as 2009's H1N1 swine flu. A universal vaccine would offer protection against all forms of the virus.
"It's like putting up a tent over your immune system that protects against rapidly mutating viruses," Kim says. At least two other companies are working on a similar vaccine. In late 2010, Inovio earned a $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to work on the vaccine.
"It's a completely different paradigm than how [the vaccines] are made seasonably every year," Kim says.
Kim says early research has been promising. Flu strains fall into different "buckets," he says. All H1N1 strains share similar characteristics, as do all H5N1 strains, including the the Asian bird flu strain that has killed more than 60 percent of the 500 or so people it has infected over the past decade.
Kim says Inovio has already made and completed successful human tests for vaccines that protect against all H1N1 and H5N1 flu strains.
In late 2011, two research groups created a strain of H5N1 bird flu that could be passed from human to human, leading the World Health Organization to issue a statement that said they were "deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences" that publishing their research could cause. Some news outlets have called the new strain "engineered doomsday" and wondered whether terrorist organizations could create and distribute a similar virus. Kim says not to worry.
"I am very certain our vaccine can already neutralize that newly made virus," he says. "We're trying to get our hands on it."
Inovio is working on vaccines that'll protect against other strains, such as H3N2, which is seen in a newly-emerged swine flu virus. Those vaccines will be combined with the already-developed H1N1 and H5N1 vaccines to be delivered in one shot by the 2013 flu season. Researchers are taking a similar approach to HIV vaccine development, but working on the flu might be easier.
"Unlike other diseases, we have 50 plus years of diagnostics on the flu," Kim says. "There are lots of toolkits that let us know if our approach will work or not. ... Our goal is to have a vaccine strategy that can protect us from all mutations."