Researchers work on universal flu vaccine

January 31, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
The flu season is taking off right now, according to local hospitals, but it's not too late to get a flu shot. Can you imagine getting just one flu shot that would last for decades? Researchers are working on a universal vaccine that would also protect us against the bird flu.

You need a flu shot every year because new flu strains are constantly evolving. However, researchers may be on track to change that.

"Most of us five years ago would have thought that the idea of a universal flu vaccine was completely impossible, that we would have a vaccine that would be given like a typical childhood vaccine. That idea is squarely on the table now," says

Gary Nabel and his team at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are working to develop vaccines that stop bird flu from becoming a global epidemic.

"We don't know for sure what it will look like if it should ever adapt and emerge in humans, so we constantly have to chase after the virus and that's the big challenge,"

Instead of just chasing new strains as they emerge, the researchers want a preemptive vaccine. In the case of the bird flu virus, they looked at proteins on the surface of the virus that allow it to attach to respiratory cells in birds.

"We asked how it would have to change its shape in order to lock onto a human cell instead of a bird cell,"

As they wrote in the journal "Science," altering the proteins resulted in a strain of bird flu that can infect human cells. Now they can make prototype vaccines against that strain.

Nabel says they're now using the technique to figure out which viral proteins might trigger immunity against all types of flu. He hopes eventually, one flu shot will last a lifetime.