Scientists close in on universal flu vaccine after studying 2009 pandemic

Scott Sutherland

After using the 2009 flu pandemic as a 'natural experiment', scientists believe they are one step closer to developing a flu vaccine that will protect against all strains of flu, even ones we haven't encountered yet.

When the 2009 pandemic of the H1N1 virus — aka 'swine flu' — began, researchers at Imperial College London moved quickly to start a new study. They gathered a group of over 300 volunteers from the students and staff of the college to donate blood samples and nasal swabs. Then, every three weeks the volunteers were given a survey, and if they were experiencing any flu symptoms, they were asked to give another nasal swab.

The results of the study showed that a specific type of cell used by our immune system — called 'CD8 T cells' — played an important role in whether people who caught the virus actually showed any symptoms. Of all the volunteers that became infected by the virus, those with fewer CD8 T cells in their blood had more serious symptoms, while those with more CD8 T cells either had very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.

Professor Ajit Lalvani, who led the study, talks about his findings in this video:

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One of the issues with current flu vaccines is that they are effective only against the specific strains of flu included in the vaccine. This is because, although the 'core' of the virus remains the same, each new strain changes its surface structure, effectively putting on a mask so that our immune system doesn't recognize it. However, these T cells can apparently see through the mask, to the virus' core.

With new strains of flu virus being discovered with alarming frequency and scientists always a step behind them in the production of new vaccines, this study may help us to get out in front of these viruses, providing more universal protection and perhaps preventing more pandemics.

(Photo courtesy: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

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