Researchers led by Holly Simmons at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have made a significant discovery in the fight against influenza, published in the open-access journal PLOS Biology.
They have identified a new class of antibodies that shows promise in neutralizing various forms of the flu virus, a development that could lead to creating more universally effective flu vaccines.
Flu vaccines stimulate the production of antibodies that target a protein on the flu virus surface called hemagglutinin. These antibodies block the virus from entering cells.
However, hemagglutinin evolves, creating new flu strains that can bypass existing antibodies. This necessitates the annual update of flu vaccines based on predictions of dominant flu strains.
One of the challenges in developing a more universally effective flu vaccine is the ability to combat multiple flu strains, particularly the H1 and H3 subtypes. These subtypes are notorious for their widespread impact and ability to evolve into multiple strains.
Simmons and her team focused on a specific obstacle: a minor alteration (the 133a insertion) in some H1 strains that affects hemagglutinin.
While specific antibodies can neutralize H3 and some forms of H1, they struggle with H1 strains harboring this 133a insertion.
In their groundbreaking research, the team identified a novel class of antibodies that can neutralize both certain H3 strains and H1 strains, regardless of the presence of the 133a insertion.
These antibodies are distinguished by unique molecular features, setting them apart from other antibodies that can cross-neutralize H1 and H3 strains.
This discovery broadens the spectrum of antibodies that could be used to develop a flu vaccine that offers more comprehensive protection.
It challenges the current flu vaccine production methods, which mainly rely on chicken eggs, and suggests the potential for alternative approaches.
The authors highlight the importance of keeping pace with the flu virus’s ongoing evolution.
Their findings indicate that it might be feasible for humans to develop robust antibody responses that neutralize divergent H1N1 and H3N2 viruses, given the right series of influenza virus exposures or vaccinations.
This opens new possibilities for designing improved, more broadly protective flu vaccines, offering hope for better management of influenza outbreaks in the future.
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The research findings can be found in PLOS Biology.
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