Brussels, 09 Aug 2005
A Belgian research institute and a UK pharmaceutical firm are cooperating to develop a new universal influenza vaccine that will offer greater protection in the event of a major pandemic.
Scientists from the Flanders Inter-University Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) first carried out the research on which the new vaccine is based, and are now working with UK-based pharmaceutical company Acambis to continue its development from the preclinical stage.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between ten and 20 per cent of the world's population are infected by flu each year, resulting in 250,000 to 500,000 deaths annually. Vaccination offers the best method of protection, but one feature of the flu virus is that its outer coating gradually changes, making it 'invisible' to antibodies built up in the body during earlier infections or vaccinations, and ensuring that altered strains can easily set of a new epidemic.
At present, the WHO determines each year which three influenza viruses are most likely to cause an epidemic in the coming winter, and these candidates are used to produce a vaccine. Since new strains appear nearly every year, however, vaccinations must be repeated annually in order to reduce the chances of getting flu by around 80 per cent.
The new vaccine was developed by VIB researchers associated with the University of Ghent, led by Walter Fiers, and is different in that it targets the M2e-domain of the flu virus. This domain is strongly conserved, even after the virus has altered, and is nearly identical in all human strains. An M2e vaccine would therefore offer protection against all flu variants, and would not have to be administered annually, thus providing far greater protection in the event of a pandemic.
According to Professor Fiers: 'The structure of M2e is almost identical in all known flu viruses that can be transmitted between people. We indicated that the M2e vaccine offers full protection to flu without side effects in mice. This way vaccination against all human flu viruses is possible, not only against viruses returning yearly, but even against future epidemics. Through our cooperation with Acambis we can continue the development of this promising vaccine.'
Another feature of the new vaccine is that, unlike current vaccines which are produced by harvesting proteins from viruses grown in the laboratory, the active component in M2e is produced using bacteria, making the production process more effective, safer and cheaper. As Gordon Cameron, CEO of Acambis, explains: 'The recent influenza vaccine shortages have highlighted the inadequacies of current influenza vaccines and their manufacturing methods. Through the collaboration with VIB we get the chance to develop the ultimate vaccine that will offer protection against all flu virus variants and reduce the annual redesign of the vaccine.'
Of greatest concern is the threat posed by a new human flu virus with a drastically altered outer coating - something that can occur several times each century. Such epidemics can contaminate up to 50 per cent of the world's population, and during the last major outbreak - the Spanish flu between 1917 and 1920 - 50 million people lost their lives. It is hoped that the present Belgian-UK collaboration will help to prevent a similar pandemic from occurring in the future.