Your doctor, your mother and your roommate nag you about getting your flu shot every year, but if Biao He has anything to say about it, you may only need it every so often instead.
He, a professor of infectious diseases and a Georgia Research Alliance distinguished investigator, and his team have discovered a new way of targeting flu vaccines that may save scientists from having to develop a yearly vaccine and may save patients their annual visit to the clinic to get a shot.
Instead of trying to teach the immune system to target the quickly-changing surface proteins, He developed a method to target nucleoproteins, which are internal and are a necessary part of a virus’ replication machinery. Because the function these proteins serve is so crucial, they don’t change much, He said.
Trials in mice have shown He’s vaccine to be 100 percent effective against H1N1 — swine flu — and 60 percent against H5N1 — avian flu. The protein used to develop the vaccine was from H5N1, which proves its ability to cross-protect.
“If it is such a simple, straightforward thing, why haven’t people tried it before or what is so special about us that we can do this,” He said. “You have to ask yourself, because we all have limited time and resources, which project you want to pursue and for us it is somewhat serendipitous because we’ve got this really nice vector system we have been developing.”
He’s delivery system for the vaccine uses PIV5, a common canine virus responsible for causing kennel cough. It is related to the viruses that cause measles, mumps and Newcastle disease virus of chickens.
“One health, that’s the one thing we’ve been talking about a lot. If you think about the flu, all this pandemic flu didn’t really come out of humans, it comes out of some kind of animal,” He said. “In many emerging diseases they’re emerging out of somewhere. If it’s in humans already we don’t really call it emerging we call it reemerging, like mumps virus.”
Mass production using the PIV5 as a vector for flu antibodies is more effective in some cases than growing the proteins in chicken eggs, which was the production method used to develop the vaccine for H1N1. The traditional method also requires the original virus in order to start production.
“The way we make the vaccine, we can vaccinate for those strands right now once we know the sequence,” He said. “We don’t need the original virus to make the vaccine. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
He said another benefit of this approach is that it provides broad spectrum immunity. He said while he wasn’t aware of all of the details of the H7N9 outbreak in China, the nucleoproteins used by that strain may be similar enough to the ones used by H1N1 and H5N1 to hopefully provide protection.
“With this new outbreak in China and as you can see there is a lot of potential danger coming out of the flu field,” He said. “So we have those kinds of vaccines, [which] can be broadly affective [and] would be advantageous because what if the new flu strain quickly spread, you don’t have a way to control it because you have to grow those virus and do attenuation or [inactivation] and that takes a lot of time.”
He compared traditional flu vaccination methods to playing soccer.
“You’ve got a soccer ball with spikes on it — red and blue ones. If our body and immune system recognizes the red and blue spikes, you see a ball with red and blue spikes and you kick it away,” He said. “The virus gets smarter and they change. What if you saw the red spike had blue polka dot and the blue spike had white polka dots. Then you see it and your body says, ‘I’m not sure we should kick it away.’”
Marshall Jenkins, a sophomore journalism major from Forsyth, said he gets his flu shot every year but thought a less regular vaccination schedule might be good.
“I think that would help the people who are questioning it. It might sway them towards getting it. I can see how that’s a problem — well, not really — but I can see how people would see how that’s annoying to get it every year,” he said.
Mark Ebell, an associate professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health, focuses on clinical epidemiology.
“If successful, this would be a real step forward for patients, who might not have to have a flu shot every year,” Ebell wrote in an email to The Red & Black. “This could also potentially increase coverage in the population, and facilitate ‘herd immunity’ that would slow the spread of the infection.”
He said the vaccine is probably still 10 years away from being available for distribution. The next step for testing is in ferrets and they will start looking for potential industry partners when they reach the pre-clinic phase.
“As scientists, as much as we’d like to develop a new vaccine, if at the end of the day if it’s not safe it does no good for anyone,” He said.