AFRI in ACTION: A Universal Flu Vaccine

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A Universal Flu VaccinePoultry and pig farmers have one thing in common with doctors: they all know that the flu is nothing to sneeze at. In 2015, an outbreak of avian flu resulted in the deaths of 42 million chickens and 7.5 million turkeys on farms across the US, causing $3.3 billion dollars in economic damages. In 2009, a swine flu outbreak killed more than 280,000 people worldwide after mutating from strains infecting people, pigs, and poultry. In combating the flu, researchers have often turned to vaccines. However, they tend to be effective against only a few particular strains of the virus. Every year, researchers develop vaccines based on their best guess on which strain will be most prevalent. Guess right, they prevent an epidemic. Guess wrong, millions of dollars are lost. This is why the holy grail for flu researchers is a universal vaccine that would be effective against all flu strains for animals and people. “The influenza virus is always changing and, for researchers, it is hard to keep up with these changes,” said Professor Chang Won Lee of the Ohio State University. His research is funded jointly by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). It is analyzing a recently discovered protein common to almost all flu strains that reliably triggers immune system responses—two hard-to-find traits within the family of influenza viruses—and then adding in other protein targets in hopes of producing a universal vaccine.

“The recent avian flu outbreak reemphasized the benefits of a universal vaccine. We never thought this could happen in the US. The situation has changed because of the involvement of wild birds, making the potential role of a vaccine in preventing outbreaks even more important.” – Dr. Chang Won Lee

The project is being conducted in collaboration with Dr. Renukaradhya Gourapura, also at Ohio State, and Dr. Xi Jason Jiang of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Dr. Jiang is testing vaccine candidates in mice, the first preliminary step before testing vaccines in people, while Dr. Lee and Dr. Gourapura tests vaccine candidates in chicken and swine. Given their genetic similarity to humans, success in pigs is often a better predictor of success in humans. The researchers are also investigating different methods of delivering the vaccine, through nanoparticle, nasal inhalers, or injections into muscle tissue. The success of this groundbreaking research would be of enormous benefit for the health of humans and animals alike, addressing a challenge that has cost countless lives and dollars.

Photo: Dr. Chang Won Lee in his laboratory. (Ohio State University)