UT Austin breakthrough could mean better flu vaccine in future

UT engineers and scientists hope their research will help the science community better understand the flu virus and improve vaccines
UT engineers and scientists hope their research will help the science community better understand the flu virus and improve vaccines (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Out of all the vaccines created to protect us, there’s only one doctors say we need to get every year: the flu shot. A team of engineers and scientists with the University of Texas at Austin are working to change that. They envision a day where one shot will protect you for life, and recently had a breakthrough which could help improve current vaccines.

“Half a million people every year die from flu globally,” said Jiwon Lee, a doctoral student in the Cockrell School of Engineering. “So it is a big problem that still affects our daily lives and also there’s a huge economic burden from getting sick with flu.”

The four-year project was led by George Georgiou, a professor in the College of Natural Sciences and the Cockrell School of Engineering. The 34 researchers on his team were from UT Austin and several other institutions, including Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, Stanford University and the National Institutes of Health.

Lee says the team was able to uncover a new class of antibodies to protect the body from several flu strains, successfully working on mice. They were able to make the discovery with the help of new technology, which they say could be the key to better understanding the virus and how to beat it.

“This information can be used to redesign the vaccine and we can test it using our technology to understand if it’s working or not,” said Lee.

The team also studied current vaccines, quadrivalent and trivalent influenza vaccines. Quadrivalent is currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect against four virus strains, and trivalent protects against three. Researchers say while both are effective, trivalent still produces antibodies to protect a person from the four strains, meaning this may be the most cost-effective option for the public.

According to the CDC, influenza is the eighth leading killer in the United States. Lee hopes their research could better protect millions someday.

“Develop a universal vaccine where you receive it as a kid and you’re protected for life against all the known viral strains,” said Lee.

Austin resident Carmella Russell was happy to learn about the discovery. Several years ago she got a flu vaccine, but was one of the unlucky few who still ended up with the flu.

“I was sick, I was real sick. Achy, tired, miserable,” said Russell. “And since then, I haven’t gotten the flu vaccine.”

Despite her worries, the vaccine can’t give a person the flu. Lee says the fragment of the virus in the vaccine is inactive and cannot affect your cells or make you sick. It’s possible Russell got a strain of flu that was not protected from her vaccine, or that she contracted the flu before the vaccine could fully protect her.

“By engineering or designing the correct or the best fragment of the virus to put in the vaccine, that’s the goal,” said Lee.

Russell says the breakthrough could change her mind about getting vaccine, someday. Researchers say that’s the goal, because it’s the only way to protect yourself from the virus.

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