A study at University College London has shown that a large proportion of the population have natural defences which can make them immune to the flu. The findings have prompted researchers to suggest that a new vaccine could be created, using our natural resistance to fight epidemics.
Tests were carried out on 1,414 people, and they revealed that 43% of unvaccinated people had immune cells which protect them from flu symptoms such as coughs, headaches and fever. These people were found to produce “T-cells”, which fight and control infections by targeting influenza’s core structural protein.
Traditional flu vaccines target the outside proteins of the flu virus, but because these constantly change, the vaccine must be regularly updated. The hope is that a “T-cell vaccine” could work for a much longer period of time because it would target the proteins at the centre of the virus, which are much more stable.
Professor Andrew Hayward, of University College London, says that developing a T-cell vaccine for flu could protect against a wide range of strains. “It may increase the level of protection we can give to elderly people, who currently often have an immune response to the current vaccine which is not as good as in young people. From time to time, we predict the antibodies that go into the seasonal flu vaccine wrong, so we get a mismatch between the vaccine and the circulating flu.”
He explains that the impact of such a mismatch could be minimised by the envisaged cross-protective vaccine, which could potentially help to prevent pandemics if used early enough to limit the spreading and ultimate size of the pandemic.