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Could a universal flu vaccine become a reality in the near future?

photo via Daniel Paquet courtesy flickr

In a recent study out of Great Britain, researchers discovered a key that might unlock a universal flu vaccine: blood.

Not just any blood, though. The researchers said the answer to what they call a universal flu vaccine may be in the blood of those who became infected with the H1N1 strain of influenza present during the 2009 influenza pandemic, but who beat the strain without getting sick.

Researchers at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London found that during the 2009 influenza pandemic, people who had a type of virus-killing immune cell called CD8 T cells were more likely to avoid serious illness, reported CBS News. Researchers believe an influenza vaccine designed to increase CD8 T cell levels could be more effective at preventing flu viruses than current vaccines that rely on making antibody, not CD8 T cells.

Best of all, they propose that a universal vaccine could reach much higher levels of effectiveness compared to current vaccines. Last year’s vaccine, for example, had a combined effectiveness rate of only around 62 percent for ages. But in one study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vaccine was not found to provide any protection from illness in those 65 years of age and older for the most serious type of influenza illness.

The research team out of London said their vaccine could be developed within five years.

So there it is. We have the best, new tool to prevent influenza, right?

Well, not so fast.

“The problem with finding a game-changing influenza vaccine isn’t the science,” said Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., an infectious disease specialist in the School of Public Health and director of the Center for Infections Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). “The problem boils down to the one often unanswered question; ‘who is going to come up with the estimated $750 million to one billion dollars and spend many years doing the many and complicated studies to get the vaccine licensed and manufacturing capacity on line?”

Osterholm explained that even with major public and private sector support and collaboration, a vaccine of this nature could take 10 – 15 years to develop.

“The real problem is there is so much hype around new findings, yet nothing can really be done until someone foots the bill and does the heavy lift to show such a vaccine really works and is safe,” Osterholm said. ”We can’t translate hype into a cure.” Nonetheless, he says, the study conducted by the researchers at Imperial College London are exactly what we need to begin the road towards a real game-changing influenza vaccine.

Stay tuned to Health Talk for all your influenza-related updates.

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