A new $3.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), puts the University of Maryland (UMD) in the race to produce a universal flu vaccine, one that is not dependent on predicting what strains of flu might be seen in the coming flu season.
The research will be conducted by the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, a joint effort of the UMD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Virginia Tech. They received the award based on the strength of previous work in this area—particularly a new, patented technology for an intranasal vaccine, rather than an injection into muscle tissue.
This new vaccine delivery technique would not only protect against the flu virus before it even enters your system, but could be safe and effective for higher risk populations like the young and elderly. With up to 20 percent of the U.S. population getting the flu each year and even more worldwide, the development of a new and improved universal flu vaccine would have a huge global impact.
“Developing a universal vaccine is a hot topic in the world now,” says Xiaoping Zhu, principal investigator on this grant, and associate dean and chair of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at UMD. “The current vaccine for seasonal flu only provides about 20 to 30 percent protection in recent years, which is low. Many people complain that they get the vaccine but still get infected. I am glad our college can be an important player to solve this issue.”
The effectiveness of the current vaccine is variable year to year and is largely based on how accurately the World Health Organization (WHO) and associated labs can predict what strains are going to be prominent in the next flu season. The issue with this system is that once the predictions are made, it takes between seven and nine months to actually produce the vaccine, during which time the flu strains occurring naturally in our environments may have changed.
“The seasonal flu vaccine is always behind the flu season,” says Zhu. “But if we can focus on conserved regions of antigens with our vaccine that are common in all flu viruses, the strain won’t matter. That is the goal of a universal flu vaccine.”
The current seasonal flu vaccines are also ineffective when it comes to the threat of a pandemic flu event, or an event that spreads across the world very quickly. These events are usually the result of antigenic shift, where the viruses can exchange genetic information and jump across species. There have been five flu pandemics recorded throughout history, the first being in 1918 with the Spanish flu killing between 50 and 100 million and nearly ending World War I.
“Pandemics still threaten our society globally, with the latest case in 2009 jumping from pigs to humans as H1N1 swine flu,” says Zhu. “In these cases of antigen shift, the seasonal flu vaccine won’t help, but a universal vaccine would.”
Zhu and his team Weizhong Li, assistant research professor in the UMD Department of Veterinary Medicine, and Susan Park Ochsner, a former graduate student of Zhu’s and now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, have been laying the groundwork to be a part of this race for the universal flu vaccine for a over decade now, preparing preliminary data and patenting a new vaccine delivery technology that is perfect for the flu vaccine. So when the NIH announced their new funding initiative, Zhu was ready to take the work to the next level and impress NIH with their innovative intranasal delivery method.
Traditional vaccines are administered intramuscularly, through an injection into the muscle that contains a small amount of the inactivated virus to help fight the infection when it occurs. But with intranasal delivery through the nose cavity and directly into the lungs, this new method can induce what is called local immunity to the flu virus, protecting you before the virus even infects you. This protein-based process is safer for all populations, including very young and elderly people who are more susceptible naturally to the virus and are therefore more likely to react negatively to a flu vaccine that contains some of the virus itself. This novel vaccine delivery method is being patented by UMD, and makes the work that Zhu is doing different from others in the game seeking to develop an injection-based universal flu vaccine.
“This is very competitive work with a huge impact on the whole world, and many other labs are working on a universal vaccine, but we used our unique idea and technology to get this funding,” says Zhu. “We have a track record of several publications around this new novel technology.”