White Coat, Black Art

The 'holy grail': We're a decade away from a universal flu vaccine

Matthew Miller of McMaster University explains why a universal flu vaccine could be a magic bullet for preventing the flu.
Dr. Matthew Miller, Assistant Prof. Biochemistry and Bio-medical Sciences at McMaster is part of a team developing a universal flu vaccine

Around the world, teams of scientists are working to crack the code for a universal flu vaccine. Canadian researcher Matthew Miller believes that could happen with a decade. 

Considered the holy grail of flu prevention, a universal or durable vaccine promises to do away with the annual guess work of trying to produce a flu vaccine successfully targets all the prevailing and quickly mutating strains of influenza each year. 

As the McMaster University assistant professor explains it, "the way current flu vaccines work they target the part of the virus that changes very quickly." 

"What we've discovered is a way to redirect the immune response to an area of the virus that doesn't change. And in doing that we can protect people from a much greater range of flu and not have to predict the strains each year," he told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art.

Health officials are finding this season the majority of flu cases being reported are an aggressive sub-type of the H3N2 virus. (CBC)

Unlike other diseases, the changeable nature of the flu makes it hard to produce a vaccine that will work from one year to the next.

Until now the flu vaccine is produced to target the individual strains that flu watchers guess will be dominant each season, a strategy that has proven to deliver unreliable results with the seasonal flu vaccine providing poor protection.

This year, for example, the flu vaccine provided only 17 per cent protection from the H3N2 flu virus that dominated in Canada.

From a public health perspective there is an urgency in developing a universal flu vaccine because it still imposes a huge burden on the healthcare system. 

Matthew Miller, Assistant Prof. Biochemistry and Bio-medical Sciences at McMaster is part of team developing a universal flu vaccine.

The other big factor is the fear of a flu pandemic becoming a reality. 

Given that it's impossible to predict which strain of the flu will develop into a pandemic, developing a universal vaccine that targets all strains is the best protection against a future flu pandemic.

Miller's team which includes colleagues at New York's Icahn School of Medicine is among several that has started human clinical trials for the vaccine last fall. He welcomes the competition with the others. 

"It's a really good thing for the public because none of these vaccines may be perfect and a lot of promising options simultaneously generates the greatest hope that one of these or a combination of these will be ready for distribution at the earliest possible time."