The flu season is almost over and from physicians’ accounts, it has been a bad one across the United States – even for those people who received a flu shot in the fall.
Globally, there are about 650,000 deaths from the flu worldwide and millions of people are hospitalized due to the illness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those people who are considered at high risk of serious flu complications include people over the age of 65, as well as people who have pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or chronic lung disease.
While there are flu shots available for patients, they are not guarantees that a patient will not get the flu, as there are multiple strains of the bug that the shot does not necessarily provide protection. Things could be changing for the better though. This week, scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a trial to examine a potential universal flu vaccine candidate, known as H1ssF_3928. According to the NIH, the experimental vaccine is designed to “teach the body to make protective immune responses against diverse influenza subtypes by focusing the immune system on a portion of the virus that varies relatively little from strain to strain.” The hope is that H1ssF_3928 will provide long-lasting protection from many strains of the flu for all age groups.
The vaccine candidate was developed by a team of NIH scientists attached to the agency’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC) Clinical Trials Program. H1ssF_3928 displays part of hemagglutinin (HA), an influenza protein, on the surface of a microscopic nanoparticle made of nonhuman ferritin, NIH said in a statement. Ferritin is a natural protein found in cells and is useful as a vaccine platform “because it forms particles that can display multiple influenza HA spikes on its surface, mimicking the natural organization of HA on the influenza virus,” according to the NIH. HA enables the influenza virus to enter a human cell and the body can then mount an immune response.
The VRC team anticipates enrollment in the Phase I trial to be completed by the end of 2019 and expects to begin reporting results in early 2020. Trial participants will record their temperature and any symptoms on a diary card for one week after each injection. They also will be asked to visit the clinic to provide blood samples at various time points. Investigators will test the samples in the laboratory to characterize and measure levels of anti-influenza antibodies. The patients will not be exposed to any influenza virus as part of the clinical trial.
“Seasonal influenza is a perpetual public health challenge, and we continually face the possibility of an influenza pandemic resulting from the emergence and spread of novel influenza viruses,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci said in a statement. “This Phase 1 clinical trial is a step forward in our efforts to develop a durable and broadly protective universal influenza vaccine.”
Other headway is being made in the battle against the flu. Last year, a group of scientists launched a study of a llama antibody as a potential flu vaccine. A team from the Scripps Institute in Southern California has been able to take antibodies made by llamas and used them as the basis for a flu vaccine. The llama antibodies are effective enough to work on a wide number of flu viruses, according to the report.
Also last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Genentech’s Xofluza, a single-dose treatment for the flu, the first new flu treatment greenlit by the FDA in nearly 20 years.