October 15, 2018

For most of us, getting a flu shot ranks among the least exciting annual events. But researchers at the Washington National Primate Research Center (WaNPRC) at the University of Washington (UW) are hoping to make this yearly obligation a thing of the past.

A team led by Deborah Fuller, a professor in the Department of Microbiology at the UW School of Medicine, is testing the effectiveness of a universal vaccine that protects from every strain of influenza virus, even when the viruses transform genetically from year to year. Working with cynomolgus macaques, the researchers have seen promise using a DNA vaccine that instructs skin cells to produce antigens, while inducing antibodies and T cell responses to fight flu infection.

The vaccine was created using genetic components of influenza virus that remain constant. This feature allows the vaccine to get around the genetic drift, or changes, that occur in influenza strains from year to year.

“With the immunized groups, we found that using this conserved component of the virus gave them 100 percent protection against a previous circulating influenza virus that didn’t match the vaccine,” Fuller said. “This was very exciting for us.”

The DNA vaccine is administered through the epidermis with a “gene gun” device, which injects the vaccine directly into the skin cells. The cells then produce the flu vaccine and prompt the body to actively fight infection. This is an improvement over current on-the-market vaccines, which simply repel the virus.

This approach also takes less time to produce—about three months—than the nine months required to produce the current U.S.-approved vaccine.

“We’ve been working essentially with the same vaccine (techniques) over the last 40 years,” Fuller noted. “It’s been a shake-and-bake vaccine: You produce the virus, you kill the virus, you inject it. Now it’s time for vaccines to go through an overhaul, and this includes the influenza vaccine.”

Fuller said that this kind of universal vaccine could eliminate the need for yearly flu vaccinations and be kept on-hand for rapid deployment in response to a deadly pandemic strain of the virus.

She added that DNA-based vaccines may also prove effective for different viruses, like Zika, and for other possible serious outbreaks.

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