Australian scientists have universal flu vaccine in their sights following breakthrough

The yearly flu jab could be replaced by a world-first universal, one-shot vaccine.

Australian researchers are hailing a major breakthrough in the development of a universal flu vaccine that protects against all strains of the virus.

Scientists at the Doherty Institute and Monash University say they have discovered immune cells that could fight off all forms of the flu virus, which could see an end to annual flu jabs. 

Depending on a patient's immune system, a cover-all flu shot would only be needed every 10 years, or potentially just once in a lifetime - and could help prevent thousands of deaths worldwide every year.

"We have identified the parts of the virus that are shared across all flu strains, and sub-strains capable of infecting humans, and then investigated if we could find robust responses to those viral parts in healthy humans, and influenza-infected adults and children," University of Melbourne PhD student, Marios Koutsakos, said.

Mr Koutsakos was part of a team led by Professor Katherine Kedzierska from Melbourne's Doherty Institute, which had its discovery published the scientific journal, Nature Immunology.

"Influenza viruses continuously mutate to evade recognition by our immune system, and they are vastly diverse, making it nearly impossible to predict and vaccinate against the strain that will cause the next influenza pandemic," Mr Koutsakos said.

Katherine Kedzierska speaks about the discovery of 'killer' immune cells that could lead to a universal flu vaccine

The vaccine that can beat the flu in whatever form it comes is considered medicine's holy grail in tackling a deadly global scourge of the winter months, and researchers they have now identified virus parts that have not changed for more than a century, which can be attacked by killer T cells.

"It was really like finding a needle in a haystack. We started with 67,000 viral sequences and narrowed it down to three sequences that the killer T-cells can recognise," Professor Kedzierska said.

But because of DNA quirks, Professor Kedzierska says the breakthrough super vaccine would be effective for only the half of the world's population that has the killer T-cells.

"Now what we are working on is using similar cutting-edge technology is to find similar killer T-cells for the rest of the global population so we can protect everyone," she said.

Depending on a patient's immune system, a cover-all flu shot would only be needed every ten years, or potentially just once in a lifetime.

A universal vaccine has the potential to be a significant lifesaver.

As recently as 2017, a particularly virulent flu strain led to a record number of infections and an estimated four thousand deaths worldwide.

The current Northern Hemisphere flu season has killed a thousand people in France alone. At least fifty-six have also died in Greece and it's feared many more are vulnerable.

Published 19 February 2019 at 7:07pm, updated 19 February 2019 at 7:12pm
By Gareth Boreham, Laurie Lawira