Researchers at the University of Southampton, University of Oxford and Retroscreeen Virology Ltd have revealed a chain of peptides, found on the internal structures of influenza viruses that might direct to the development of a global vaccine for influenza, which will give people immunity against all strains of the diseases, counting seasonal, avian and swine flu.
Influenza, an acute viral infection, affects hundreds of thousands of people a year and puts an enormous strain on healthcare providers globally. The last pandemic flu outbreak in the UK - swine flu - was in 2009 when it claimed 457 lives. While previous pandemics have been more serious, there is a heightened risk of more severe pandemics in the future.
The scientific collaboration used a research method known as "Human Viral Challenge Studies", where healthy volunteers are infected with influenza virus, and their immune responses closely monitored in an isolation unit.
These were important to the research, published online in Nature Medicine, as they allowed the healthy volunteers to be held in "sterile" isolation conditions and ensured they had no existing infections. The volunteers were then "challenged" with influenza virus, with blood samples being taken at regular intervals to observe how their immune systems responded to the viral infection.
A vaccine against these peptides would activate the T-cell immune response - which is able to respond much more rapidly than vaccines that activate an antibody response.
Dr Tom Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in Respiratory Medicine at the University of Southampton, who led the study, says: "Influenza is a virus that we know has a global impact, and the threat of further pandemics is a real one. Most influenza vaccines only protect us against known influenza strains by creating antibodies in the blood but the influenza virus has the ability to rapidly change itself and new strains can emerge which rapidly spread across the globe by escaping this immunity.
"Current flu vaccines are very good at producing antibodies against flu, but not so good at generating a lasting immunity involving T-cells,' says Professor Sir Andrew McMichael, Director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford University.
He added: "The big question is: if we had a pandemic involving a much more severe virus than the swine flu we saw, what would we do in the six months it takes to develop an effective vaccine? This study suggests that vaccines stimulating a T-cell response might be an option, but there remains a lot to do to be certain of this approach."
The study was funded by the University of Southampton, the MRC and Retroscreen Virology Limited.