I think we can all agree that getting the flu is about the worst possible thing that can happen during winter. That’s why we take vaccines, but it only lasts for a season. Even then, the vaccine may not work and we end up getting the flu anyway. That’s a problem, and one that scientists may have finally solved.
New Scientist reports that researchers have possibly created a vaccine that targets the very building blocks of flu viruses. If effective, it could mean an end to influenza as we know it, and prevent any future outbreaks of the virus. The best part is that the new vaccine can be quickly made and distributed among those that need it most before an epidemic can break out.
To understand how this new vaccine works, you have to understand how a traditional flu vaccine works. The traditional flu vaccine introduces our body’s immune system to a dead flu virus, and the immune system builds up protection against key proteins found on the surface of the virus. Those key proteins are constantly shifting, however, as flu viruses evolve every year. That’s why you have to get a new vaccine every year.
Now, the new vaccine being tested at the moment is very different. It’s made up of messenger RNA, or mRNA, that controls the production of proteins in influenza. The vaccine would be comprised of this mRNA, and your body would view it as outside proteins that must be destroyed. Any future intruders containing these proteins, which pretty much means all flu viruses, would be targeted by your immune system and subsequently destroyed.
Life long vaccines against influenza have been developed for a while now, but all have been caught up in clinical trials or questions of safety. One such vaccine is the DNA vaccine, but some fear that a DNA vaccine could cause irreparable harm to the human genome. An RNA vaccine carries no such risk, but past trials have ended up in failure as the body’s immune system destroys the vaccine before it has a chance to work.
The current mRNA vaccine being tested in animals has proven far more effective as it uses a protein called protamine that binds to mRNA and protects it from the immune system. This allows the vaccine to move through the body, and curate the creation of antibodies.
Amazingly enough, early tests of this new vaccine on mice and pigs have proven very effective. Not only does the vaccine prevent the seasonal flu, but it also protects against the far more deadly bird flu. There’s no word yet on if it protects against swine flu, but it definitely seems possible.
The vaccine is still being tested on animals, but it could move to human clinical trials soon. After that, we may soon enter an era where children are given a flu vaccine at a young age to protect them from the virus throughout their entire lives. The mRNA vaccine method could also be used to build up immunities to certain types of cancer and other diseases like meningitis and E. Coli.