Is This the Future of Flu Vaccines?
See that picture up above? You’re looking at one of the most advanced weapons (to fight a microscopic enemy) the human race has ever created. It’s a nanoparticle (in gray) coated with synthetically produced coat proteins (HA, to be precise) from the influenza virus. Normally, flu mashes its coat proteins together like so:
The nanoparticles may be a major step toward a universal vaccine, which, of course, would be an awesome thing to have, save millions of lives, help us prevent a mass pandemic, etc.
Because flu viruses mutate, shuffle and swap their genes so frequently, the precise shape of the proteins that make up their spiky suit of armor is constantly being tweaked. It’s like how, from afar, a Sarahan sand dune might appear the same shape and height from day to day, but when you look closely, the precise contours of its windswept dimpled have been changed ever so slightly by erosion. On and on it changes, never the same twice.
Our immune system relies on sentry proteins called antibodies in order to recognize foreign invaders like flu based on their binding to those precise contours and shapes, like tiny chinks in the armor. The exact set of antibodies that killed last year’s flu are stored in your immune system’s memory, ready to keep you safe from that infection in the future. Because the flu virus shuffles and tweaks its shape from year to year, we are constantly playing catch-up, reacting to new armor every year. It’s like going home to find the lock changed, every day having to cut a new key.
If we could just make antibodies that bind to an unchanging part of the viral protein, like the trunks of those blue protein trees up there, we might be able to defend ourselves from future mutants with a single vaccination. But the virus keeps those parts hidden just enough to keep otherwise universal antibodies from attacking it.
That’s where this new research from Gary Nabel and his group might come in handy. By attaching the HA coat protein (again, the blue thing) from influenza to nanoparticles, their Achilles Heel is exposed and strong, universal antibodies are amplified and stored in your body’s defense bank. They built this nanoparticle vaccine from a 1999 strain’s HA protein, and it protected animals from a half-century’s worth of H1N1 viruses! It’s as close to universal as I’ve ever heard.
Point: humans. But, these are tricky bugs, and we shouldn’t get cocky, especially without human trials (yet). But we have brains, and they don’t. That’s really our best weapon, no?