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One of the major challenges in fighting influenza worldwide is how rapidly the virus evolves — new strains of the disease emerge every year, rendering older vaccines ineffective. While high-profile scares like avian flu and swine flu are more likely to make the news, the truth is that the seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people around the world each year. That’s why researchers at Imperial College London were so excited to announce they’ve created a “blueprint” for a vaccine that could potentially protect against many existing and future strains of the influenza virus.
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The discovery hinges on the unique physical structure of the virus. While the inner “core” of the virus stays more or less the same for most common strains of the flu, the outer proteins that help the body recognize the disease can be very different between strains. If scientists can create a vaccine that mobilizes the immune system against the common core of the virus, it could offer immunity to emerging strains of the disease.
Research on the vaccine started in 2009, when scientists noticed that some students and staff at the university who had been exposed to pandemic flu didn’t seem to develop any serious symptoms. Even though this was a completely novel strain of flu, researchers found that some people were able to develop partial or complete immunity based on exposure to past flu viruses. Blood samples showed that these patients had higher amounts of T-cells in their bodies — allowing their immune systems to recognize the core of the virus and mount a defense.
Realistically, researchers say a vaccine is about five years away. Normal vaccines are designed to provoke the immune system into developing antibodies specific to a certain virus, and creating a vaccine that develops T-cells is a bit more challenging. In fact, the only current flu vaccine known to boost T-cell count is only effective in young children. The new vaccine wouldn’t be a cure-all and wouldn’t be able to protect fully against every strain of flu, but it could significantly cut down on the number of flu-related deaths each year, reduce the need for yearly flu shots in immunocompromised patients, and reduce panic about future flu pandemics.