Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have received $1.6 million in federal funds to study various aspects of universal flu vaccines. The funds came from the National Institutes of Health-funded Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance.

Photo Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

URMC scientists are among others around the world working to make the yearly flu shot a thing of the past. They are pursuing a universal flu vaccine, one that would protect against most or all seasonal and pandemic strains of the flu virus.

While it is a daunting challenge, recent research shows that one of the most promising strategies is creating a vaccine that targets the stalk of a protein that covers the flu virus. However, it is not a bulletproof approach.

The hemagglutinin protein, which blankets the flu virus, is somewhat akin to a flower; it has a stalk and a head. Current vaccines target the head, which is the part of the virus that changes to evade immune defenses. The stalk is known to stay relatively constant from one flu strain to another. Directing a vaccine and the body’s immune response towards the stalk could provide broad protection.

Researchers at the URMC-based New York Influenza Center of Excellence, however, found that the stalk can change, although not as easily or frequently as the head. Using supercomputers at the university’s Health Sciences Center for Computational Innovation, they analyzed the genetic sequences of human H1N1 flu viruses circulating since 1918.

Their research found variations in both the head and the stalk, although variability was highest in the head region. Results suggested that the stalk can vary in response to pressure from the immune system.

“The good news is that it’s much more difficult to drive mutations in the stalk, but it’s not impossible,” said David Topham, study author and the Marie Curran Wilson and Joseph Chamberlain Wilson Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at URMC. “A universal flu vaccine based on the stalk would be more broadly protective than the ones we use now, but this information should be taken into account as we move forward with research and development.”

The New York Influenza Center of Excellence is part of the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance.