University of Texas Southwestern's scientists have created a new flu vaccine that can protect us against any kind of flu, not just one type. Unlike the current type of vaccines, this can even protect us if the virus mutates.
That's the big problem of the current vaccines: every year, medical experts guess what's going to be the dominant flu strain and create a vaccine using a weakened version of that virus. When it gets injected, our body gets to know the weakened virus safely, producing cells that can neutralize that virus if a real attack occurs. The problem is that, if that virus mutates, this prevention becomes useless. That is why people may get the flu even when they are vaccinated.
The team led by Dr. Beatrice Fontoura took a completely different approach:
What we are doing is something different. We are actually stimulating our own response which is already there – boost it – to fight an infection.
Their solution boosts our natural immunological system, targeting a protein in our bodies called REDD-1. Fontoura's team discovered that, when REDD-1 levels are low in a cell, the flu virus can easily infect the cell. The vaccine increases the protein's levels, creating a shield that is impossible for the virus to penetrate.
According to the team, the new vaccine is so effective that it can even protect us against the Spanish Flu, the H1N1 influenza virus that killed between 50 and 100 million in 1918, mostly healthy young adults. Another deadly H1N1 virus was the Swine Flu, which may have infected 11% to 21% of the world's population in 2009.
Sadly, the vaccine is still not ready for mass distribution yet. They have to complete the usual FDA procedures to be introduced in the market, a process that may take years. [CBS]