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Steps Toward a Universal Flu Vaccine 177

Posted by kdawson
from the one-antibody-to-rule-them-all dept.
Plasmoid writes "The NYTimes is reporting that scientists have starting developing what could turn out to be a 'universal' flu vaccine. They created antibody proteins that can neutralize different strains of the influenza virus, including the deadly H5N1 bird flu, the virus behind the 1918 epidemic, and common seasonal strains. These new antibodies target part of the virus that is shared between different strains and thus appear to be broadly effective. However, some experts question whether a universal vaccine of this kind is even possible, since the human body has been unable to come up with an antibody solution. An article on nature.com describes the work further."
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Steps Toward a Universal Flu Vaccine

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:05PM (#26963859)

    Influenza [wikipedia.org]

    In humans, common symptoms of the disease are chills, fever, pharyngitis, muscle pains, severe headache, coughing, weakness, and general discomfort.[1] In more serious cases, influenza causes pneumonia, which can be fatal, particularly in young children and the elderly. Although it is often confused with the common cold, influenza is a much more severe disease and is caused by a different type of virus.[2] Influenza can produce nausea and vomiting, especially in children,[1] but these symptoms are more characteristic of the unrelated gastroenteritis, which is sometimes called "stomach flu" or "24-hour flu".[3]

    We geeks often neglect our health, especially during the cold and flu season (Which is a prime time to stay inside, Frag noobs, write badass scripts, Watch Babylon 5, etc). Make sure you take all the necessary precautions [wikipedia.org] to keep your wetware virus-free!

    • We geeks often neglect our health, especially during the cold and flu season (Which is a prime time to stay inside, Frag noobs, write badass scripts, Watch Babylon 5, etc). Make sure you take all the necessary precautions [wikipedia.org] to keep your wetware virus-free!

      I don't know what you're trying to say, but we geeks are actually taking much better care of our health in this respect than non-geeks, simply because we tend to spend a bit less time in the company of other people, and more time indo

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Provided they don't have children to bring home contagions............

        Oh wait this is /.!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Hurricane78 (562437)

        Yeah. Like not driving a car because you could crash, instead of learning how to drive.

        Your body has a immune system. That system can be trained. Kissing and sex are the best training. Now tell me you do not like that idea... ;)

        But on a more serious note: The body is a machine, made for complex thinking and long running/hunting. But it need a very specific set of resources and be kept from rusting in, to do its work.
        You know. Not much short carboydrates and saturated fats. But non-denaturalized proteins, lo

    • by aliquis (678370)

      I wouldn't call that neglecting, good luck getting the virus in the first place if you don't meet anyone.

  • by bugi (8479) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:06PM (#26963869)

    some experts question whether a universal vaccine of this kind is even possible, since the human body has been unable to come up with an antibody solution.

    Experts in what? Theology?

    So either evolution is perfect and has already done it or it can't be done?

    Riiiight. Evolution != god.

    • FUCKIN' A (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Slashdotters really really need to get over the obsession with evolution, there is no such thing. How many fuckin' times do I have to tell you pimply kids that? If it was real, you wouldn't have pimples...

    • by cheesybagel (670288) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:21PM (#26964057)
      That must be why the human body didn't come with a vaccine for smallpox either. Oh wait...
      • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Monday February 23, 2009 @10:39PM (#26965055)

        That must be why the human body didn't come with a vaccine for smallpox either. Oh wait...

        Actually, in history, two humans have instantaneously developed full immunity to smallpox through the correct antibodies. Sadly, before anyone could work out they were immune to it, they died of the common cold.

      • by Headw1nd (829599)

        The human body doesn't come with a vaccine for anything. What the human body did come with was antibodies that were effective against smallpox. All the vaccine did, all any vaccine does, was encourage production of the cells that made these antibodies. So when your body came in contact with smallpox, or whatever else you were vaccinated against, it was already primed for the fight.

        What the article seems to be implying is that in this case, there are no naturally occurring antibodies to be produced. If

    • by CaptainPatent (1087643) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:31PM (#26964145) Journal
      Agreed, this is a horrible summary:

      However, some experts question whether a universal vaccine of this kind is even possible, since the human body has been unable to come up with an antibody solution.

      Firstly adding to your point (and according to the theory,) evolution is only "perfect" over an infinite time frame. The fact that there is no universal antibody could mean one of two things: the time frame was too short or there's a reason why the human body doesn't want a universal solution, and I can think of at least one big one.

      The human body has thousands of known symbiotic relationships and potentially thousands or millions of unknown ones. Most of these are bacterium (or more rarely viruses) that do something to help the human body. The digestive tract has literally trillions of non-human cells within it. There is even an organ who's use (which was previously unknown) is to store 'good' bacteria when the body is fighting other harmful invaders. I'm speaking of course of the appendix - the one organ which literally oozes symbiosis. The human body might not 'want' a universal solution as those which are adapted to allow the potential for additional symbiotic relationships before ejecting them have a better chance at thriving as every tiny advantage helps.

      I'm not saying this is a step in the wrong direction and I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing because the vast majority if not all viruses of this strain are harmful to humans at this point, but to say that evolution couldn't come up with a solution therefore there isn't one makes a ton of huge assumptions which probably aren't all valid.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mikael (484)

        Aren't modified flu viruses used to perform "gene therapy" with some rare genetic disorders. What if someone did get the perfect "universal flu vaccine", then found out they had a genetic disorder that could only be fixed using gene therapy?

        I always wondered whether viruses were deliberately created by the cells in all sorts of creatures as a way of spreading beneficial modifications - the only disadvantage being it sometimes ends up reaching the wrong species.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Opyros (1153335)

        evolution is only "perfect" over an infinite time frame

        Even over an infinite time span, natural selection may not be perfect in dealing with an enemy which is evolving too!

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:43PM (#26964249)

      So either evolution is perfect and has already done it or it can't be done?

      Keep in mind that every single vaccine out there merely uses your natural immune system. All vaccines do is present the immune system with a target, then the immune system does it's work. That's it. Vaccines absolutely rely on the immune system. So yes, if the immune system absolutely can't make you immune to every flu virus, then we can't make a vaccine that could.

      A non-vaccine based approach might work, like the antiviral cocktails used to treat AIDS, but that's horribly inefficient, would require constant medication, and could end up making superflu. Really the best solutions all end with priming the immune system to do the dirty work.

    • by Eskarel (565631)

      I think the argument against its possibility is pretty simple.

      • Vaccines work by preparing the body's immune system for a fight against the real virus in a situation where its more likely to actually win.
      • The human body has been exposed to various and sundry flu strains for some substantial period of time and has yet to generate a universal flu anti-body(not even any substantial resistance to minor seasonal variations).
      • This implies that one of the following is true.
        1. General Immunity requires a unique trigger
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jeff4747 (256583)

        5. Specific immunity is sufficient in the overwhelming number of cases, making there be no real selection for natural immunity.

        Antibodies are randomly constructed until our body stumbles upon one that happens to stick to the outside of the flu virus. It doesn't matter to our immune system where it sticks, just that it does.

        Since the flu mutates very rapidly, it's likely that our immune system will stumble across antibodies for a region that changes all the time.

        While our brains would prefer a general immun

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Repossessed (1117929)

      Evolution is not really the mechanism for developing antibodies. It's also normal for a person to be immune or resistant to viruses they've had , but successfully fought off. In fact, vaccines rely on human antibody production to be effective. Even if we can develop a antibody in the lab that fights all influenza strains, there's no guarantee that the human body can be coaxed into producing that antibody on its own.

      The problems with making a universal vaccine are *because* of evolution's weakness, not be

    • For example: wheels.
  • Not only that, but (Score:4, Informative)

    by jdpars (1480913) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:09PM (#26963897)
    There was a talk about this at TED. Turns out the same ideas of shared virus parts can be used to identify and diagnose, or even as this article suggests, cure various diseases very quickly.
  • Weird logic (Score:4, Insightful)

    by avandesande (143899) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:10PM (#26963917) Journal

    "However, some experts question whether a universal vaccine of this kind is even possible, since the human body has been unable to come up with an antibody solution. "

    Using this logic we shouldn't have come up with vaccines for smallpox, polio or rabies either.

    • Re:Weird logic (Score:5, Informative)

      by swillden (191260) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Monday February 23, 2009 @10:14PM (#26964931) Homepage Journal

      "However, some experts question whether a universal vaccine of this kind is even possible, since the human body has been unable to come up with an antibody solution. "

      Using this logic we shouldn't have come up with vaccines for smallpox, polio or rabies either.

      We were able to come up with vaccines specifically because the body can come up with an antibody solution. Those vaccines (all vaccines) work by stimulating the production of the same antibodies it would produce to fight an infection.

      The challenge here is to develop a vaccine that causes the body to produce antibodies that it would NOT produce in response to an infection. This vaccine must cause the body to produce antibodies that are more general than those it would produce for any specific flu, but still specific enough that they won't attack anything beneficial.

      I'm not a doctor. But I did take health in 9th grade.

      • Cat and Mouse (Score:3, Insightful)

        The challenge here is to develop a vaccine that causes the body to produce antibodies that it would NOT produce in response to an infection. This vaccine must cause the body to produce antibodies that are more general than those it would produce for any specific flu, but still specific enough that they won't attack anything beneficial.

        ... or not attack the beneficial ones for long enough to cause serious long term effects. Kind of like the viral equivalent of antibiotics, right?

        Can you say "superbug?"

        Let's

    • Using this logic we shouldn't have come up with vaccines for smallpox, polio or rabies either.

      The body does come up with antibody solutions to those diseases... it just does it a little slower than you'd like after the first infection (IE the virus spreads and you get sick and die before your body identifies an antibody that works and starts pumping it out to make you immune.)

      With the flu, you catch one and become immune to it, but the next year a different strain comes out and you're not immune to it. Your antibodies don't recognize the newer form and you're not immune. Fortunately that doesn't h

    • Too many mod points out there if things like this are getting to the top.

  • by CannonballHead (842625) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:11PM (#26963933)

    I found this quote rather comical.

    "If you have one or two that cover the vast majority of isolates, I wouldn't be ashamed to call that a universal vaccine."

    So, universal now means "vast majority." So I guess, to really refer to universal, we'll have to say "actually universal." Hm.

    • If you have one or two that cover the vast majority of isolates, I wouldn't be ashamed to call that a universal vaccine.

      I wouldn't be ashamed to take this large wodge of money and get my name in all the papers, but I reserve the right to be contrite, abashed, and sheepish. Sheepish, especially. That costs extra. First, you have to pay for the sheep - but then the shame takes care of itself!

    • It would be as universal as the world series is... uh. Miss universe is... uh. What were we talking about again?
    • by john83 (923470)
      That's a very unique definition they have there.
  • by wild_quinine (998562) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:11PM (#26963943) Homepage

    However, some experts question whether a universal vaccine of this kind is even possible, since the human body has been unable to come up with an antibody solution.

    No offence, I love the human body and all, but there are LOTS of things it has 'been unable to come up with', including the much needed ability to render stupid people unconscious by concentrating hard.

    Being part of a system of evolution is not a panacea for disease; quite the opposite. Almost every positive thing you can say about our resistance to disease comes directly or indirectly off the back of people who didn't have a particular type of resistance 'taking one for the team', so to speak. There's nothing wrong with hunting for cures that DON'T involve the mass extinctions of the genetically unfortunate. There'll be plenty of time for it to all work itself out.

    • Very well stated. Bravo
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Well if the human body hasn't figured it out by itself, then what chance do we have.

    I don't why we invented armour, our skin should have learned how to protect itself against sharp stabby knives by now.

    • I don't why we invented armour, our skin should have learned how to protect itself against sharp stabby knives by now.

      Funny, but not really helpful. Your evolved defense against a knife is: avoid getting stabbed. That's far more effective than avoiding the flu. And also knives are a much newer thing that haven't caused much evolution yet, wheras viruses seem to have been around a lot longer and did shape evolution.

      The human body is pretty smart, especially on a molecular level. We don't have machines yet that rival the efficiency of many enzymes found in your body. The old adage that the dumbest kidney is far smarter

      • by ardor (673957)

        With some notable exceptions like the blind spot in the eye, the kneecap, or our teeth. Also, why is the liver the only organ which can grow back? Why don't we have limbs that can regrow? Why can't we control our own immune system consciously, for example to designate HI and Influenza viruses as hostile?

      • And also knives are a much newer thing that haven't caused much evolution yet...

        Nature's [wikipedia.org] knives [wikipedia.org]; Many [wikipedia.org] and [wikipedia.org] varied [wikipedia.org].

  • by icebike (68054) on Monday February 23, 2009 @08:19PM (#26964035)

    > some experts question whether a universal
    > vaccine of this kind is even possible, since
    > the human body has been unable to come up with
    > an antibody solution

    First, the researchers don't claim a universal anti-virus, simply a broad spectrum one.

    Those nay-saying, have no lab data, those doing the research do. Its effective in animal studies and human studies will soon begin.

    The human body does not search for the best antibody, or the most universal one. It simply throws stuff out there and sees what sticks (figuratively and literally).

    This approach goes after an area on the virus that is hard to reach because of its structure.

    Quoting TFA:

    " The flu virus uses the lollipop-shaped hemagglutinin spike to invade nose and lung cells. There are 16 known types of spikes, H1 through H16.

    The spikeâ(TM)s tip mutates constantly, which is why flu shots have to be reformulated each year. But the team found a way to expose the spikeâ(TM)s neck, which apparently does not mutate, and picked antibodies that clamped onto it. "

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Americano (920576)

      First, the researchers don't claim a universal anti-virus, simply a broad spectrum one.

      You're right - the researchers don't make that claim at all.

      Those nay-saying, have no lab data, those doing the research do. Its effective in animal studies and human studies will soon begin.

      From TFA in Nature (emphasis mine):

      The antibodies also give researchers clues about how to develop new vaccines. "This opens up the avenue of thinking about universal influenza vaccines, which has not been realistic before," says

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Quoting TFA:

      " The flu virus uses the lollipop-shaped hemagglutinin spike to invade nose and lung cells.

      That right there explains why the flu is so contagious with kids - you stick a lollipop in front of them and presto, they're all over it.

    • by Vornzog (409419)

      This approach goes after an area on the virus that is hard to reach because of its structure.

      Err, not really. Your body *could* produce antibodies to that region, but that region doesn't normally get your immune system very excited.

      Flu has five primary antigenic sites that do provoke your immune system. Not surprisingly, these are hyper variable regions, hence the need to reformulate the vaccine every couple of years.

      There are a standard set of tricks that you can use to force an immune response to particular part of a protein. For example, get rid of the stuff that normally provokes the immune

  • However, some experts question whether a universal vaccine of this kind is even possible, since the human body has been unable to come up with an antibody solution. Is it just me, or does this statement seriously underestimate the millions and millions of years necessary (during which the majority of the population must die from the flu the entire time) necessary for evolution to come up with an "antibody solution"?
    • That's not human arrogance. Human arrogance is that we can create a universal drug.

      It's Divine Arrogance which states that God/Nature/The Universe would have cured it if it was possible and that science has no business messing around with The Way Things Are (tm)

    • by Zironic (1112127)

      It doesn't take millions of years for the body to create an antibody solution, generally it does it really fast. However the body keeps doing it for the specific strain and the strain is different each year.

      The researchers have a huge advantage the body doesn't have, they can compare all the strains to find similarities and thus create a broad spectrum antibody.

    • Is it just me, or does this statement seriously underestimate the millions and millions of years necessary (during which the majority of the population must die from the flu the entire time) necessary for evolution to come up with an "antibody solution"?

      I think they're talking about the current human body as opposed to one in millions of years. Your immune system as it is now appears unable to prevent all flu viruses, maybe that's because of -current- inherent limitations on it, which is of course of interest to you right now. I don't think anyone would dispute that given enough time and natural selection, the immune system would be able to find a way.

    • Actually, human evolution has probably only had 10,000 years - since the development of agriculture. Wide epidemics need population centers. Otherwise, the flu passes through the small wandering tribe, and has run its course before the tribe meets someone new to infect. (Xenophobia is also a really good idea. Chat to strangers over a fire, with them downwind.)

      The evolution argument also assumes that antibodies know what the object of the exercise is. I did research on them, but was a chemist way back, and g
  • This is the second relatively invariant influenza target antigen identified now. The previous one being the M2 protein, which has given rise to great hopes of a universal flu vaccine [sciam.com].

    As for which one seems more promising, I think we'll definitely see results from the M2-based work first. It has a substantial head start (I think there are some candidates in Phase II testing already), and it doesn't look like there are any fundamental obstacles popping up yet.

  • Yeah, like those EVIL drug companies will NEVER let this out. Just like BIG OIL, they will bury this INNOVATION with the 100 MPG carburetor designs.

    I was going for the tin-foil hat look, but I don't think I have enough caps... no pun intended.
  • It really seems odd to me that any stories dealing with genetics, vaccines, or medicine in general get the "iamlegend" tag. This one for example: no viruses are being artificially made, nor is there much gene splicing going on. The equivalent would be be like someone tagging "BASH 4.0 Released" as "terminator2000" or "skynet."

  • Besides the "clothing is optional" benefit, working from home greatly limits exposure to contagions.

    Although going to the grocery store and seeing the checkout clerk wipe her nose is hard to avoid.

  • HIV DNA has been sequenced for almost a quarter century. Yet a workable vaccine in humans hasn't succeeded yet, despite decades of attempts. Like the flu and common cold there are dozens of variants. Nature is more devious than we can imagine.
  • Go here and get some good info on vaccines and why they aren't dangerous:

    http://quackcast.com/spodcasts/files/48f9db861d8a83f764792aa4b77990f8-29.html [quackcast.com]

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