Tired of seasonal flu shots that don't always work? Researchers in Australia might have just discovered the flu shot to end all flu shots — and possibly, end influenza too, reports MedicalXpress.com.
A universal flu vaccine — one which would be effective against all strains of the virus — is on the verge of discovery. It's a finding that is being heralded as an "extraordinary breakthrough," one that could make humanity's greatest viral scourge a thing of the past.
Influenza and pneumonia kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, and before the discovery of antibiotics, it was the leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than heart disease or cancer. Part of the reason it is so difficult to eradicate is because the virus comes in many strains, all of which mutate frequently.
"Influenza viruses continuously mutate to evade recognition by our immune system, and they are vastly diverse, making it nearly impossible to predict and vaccinate against the strain that will cause the next influenza pandemic," said Marios Koutsakos, a researcher at the University of Melbourne's Doherty Institute.
But now, researchers have found a type of immune cell, known loosely as a "killer" T-cell, that is capable of being developed to fight all forms of the flu in one fell swoop. Remarkably, it's a type of cell that's been hiding in plain sight, part of the natural immune systems of around half the world's population.
Killer T-cells are a type of white blood cell that not only scan the body for viruses and infection, but also target and kill other cells in the body which have already become infected.
Using a scanning technique known as mass spectrometry, researchers identified the parts of flu viruses that are shared among them. They then realized that they could engineer killer T-cells that are capable of targeting all variations of influenza A, B and C.
The hope is that a universal flu vaccine can be created from these engineered killer T cells that can be taken just once, and the recipient will be protected from ever catching the flu again for the rest of their life. Assuming that the vaccine can also be developed to work on around half the population that doesn't naturally possess these flu-killing T-cells, it might eventually lead to the eradication of the flu entirely, just like how smallpox or polio have been wiped out.
The research team that discovered the method have already patented it. It's potentially a world-changing find, which could save countless lives. For now, though, don't forget to get your pesky seasonal flu shot. The prospect that it might be one of the last you'll ever need again will hopefully make that prick sting a little less.